With the return of the Christmas holidays, many of us are looking for toys to give to children, ours, or those of our family and friends. We have often heard it said that “in the old days” some people only received an orange at Christmas. So, toys at Christmas, would it be very recent, and reserved for the richest?
To answer this question, it must be broken down into several points. Since when do we offer toys at the end of the year, and when, for which holidays? Who gave the toys before we created Santa Claus? And why – and how – it became the main distributor of gifts? If we want to see more clearly, we must go back more than two millennia, and redo the course of the offering of toys, from ancient Greece to the present day.
From Antiquity, toys at the end of the year
When we were children in Athens, in the fifth century BC, we could receive toys at the end of the year, that is to say in February in the calendar of the time. The toys were offered on the occasion of two festivals, the Anthesteria (Feast of Dionysus) and the Diasies (Feast of Zeus), in memory of these gods who received toys in their childhood. From that time, they were toys of the trade as attested by Aristophanes, in The Clouds, play performed in 423 BC.
The little Romans received it in December on a Saturnalia day called the Sigillaria. We played nuts, ancestors of our marbles, during this period. For New Year’s Eve, they are gifts of money that accompany the greetings for the new year, a social celebration and not a family one.
Roman bas-relief from the 2nd century AD representing the god Saturn, in whose honor the Saturnalia were celebrated, holding a sickle © Jean-Pol Grandmont / Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Ancient Christianity is not at the origin of the gift of toys to children during the feast of the Nativity, the date of which is only fixed in the 4th century, a period when December 25 remains in competition with January 6, the Epiphany. The sacred character of these festivals would not be well suited to the frivolity of toys. For the child to become important, it will take long centuries of humanization of the Holy Family which will reduce the gap between the sacred and the profane. Witness the emergence of a cult of Saint Joseph, becoming in the 15th century a “modern” father, washing his son’s diapers and cooking.
During the Renaissance, the end-of-year celebrations gave more space to children, during the feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28), that of Saint Nicolas (December 6), and during New Years.
From toys to New Year’s gifts
It was in the 16th century that a fundamental element seemed to take place: sacred donors, external to the family, offered toys to children, and parents disappeared behind them. We must understand the importance of this fact: by stepping aside, parents relieve children of the burden of recognition, they make a “pure” gift, which expects nothing in return. Do not believe that the phenomenon is spreading and exists everywhere in the sixteenth century, it has just dawned, and sacred donors are far from competing with parents who give their gifts mainly to New Year’s Eve. But let’s start first with Saint Nicholas and the Child Jesus.
The Feast of Saint Nicholas (detail) © Jan Steen / Wikimedia CC0 (via The Conversation)
From the first half of the 16th century, testimonies tell us that Saint Nicholas brought toys and sweets to children, and even Martin Luther, who opposed the worship of saints, noted in his expenses for December 1535 the purchase of gifts for his children. children and their servants on the feast of Saint Nicholas. Even in Protestant countries, such as Holland, the cult of this saint persists and four paintings by Jan Steen and Richard Brackenburg, located between 1665 and 1685 bear witness to a family celebration where we already find part of the Christmas rituals: family reunited, shoes in the fireplace through which the toys arrive.
Other Protestant countries, like Germany and Switzerland, and a region like Alsace, make the Child Jesus the donor. Archives in Strasbourg show it as early as 1570, in a sermon by Johannes Flinner, and the city suppresses Saint-Nicolas while keeping the market of 5-6 December before establishing the Christmas market, the Christkindelmarkt, on the place of Cathedral. Pastor Joseph Conrad Dannhauer refers to these gifts to children as “a beautiful doll and the like”, and he attests to the presence of the tree “we hang dolls and sweets on it”, indignant that the children’s prayers are filled with very material demands. The family celebration more secular than religious is not far away!
The Feast of Saint Nicholas (detail) © Richard Brakenburgh / Wikimedia CC0 (via The Conversation)
But in Catholic France in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was the New Year’s Eve that was the privileged moment for offering gifts for the benefit of the family and children. The royal accounts attest to this, like those of Marie de Médicis in 1556, and the testimony of Héroard on the New Year’s gifts received by little Louis XIII. The custom also existed in the petty bourgeoisie, and in Paris, at the end of the year, huts on the sidewalks offered the lust of children small toys and sweets. Thus, the gift of toys for the New Year goes hand in hand with the toy trade, and the latter increases with the progression of sensitivity to childhood.
In the eighteenth century, the production of toys increases in power, reaching millions of objects per year in the years 1770-1780 as we have shown from the archives. From 1760, the “Ads, Posters and Miscellaneous Opinions of the City of Paris” introduced us to the best toy shops in the capital. A passage of
The Children’s Friend Arnauld Berquin shows us, on New Year’s Eve, a table covered with toys and brilliantly lit, which is close to the German staging of the New Year’s Eve described by ETA Hoffmann in 1816 in The Nutcracker and the Rat King. Thus a family ritualization of the New Year’s Eve celebration is set up in favor of children, which prefigures the future Christmas celebration.
In the 19th century, many donors
The donation of toys to children remains mainly on the New Year’s Eve, even if Saint Nicolas is present in the north and north-east of France but new donors are appearing, linked to popular cultures, such as Befana, a witch who comes to France. Epiphany, and the Three Wise Men on the same date in Sardinia and Spain. Secular personifications appear, little documented by serious works: Father Janvier for the New Year’s Eve, the Bonhomme Noël or Père Noël in France, the English Father Christmas and the German Weihnachtsmann, who appear before the American Father Christmas from Santa Claus.
He is a chubby little man, endowed with a red houppelande with a white fur lapel, living in the North Pole, very human, serene, reassuring, joyful, bearer of positive, familiar, universal values, which invite everyone to celebrate. Social groups. Its image imposed itself at the end of the 19th century in England, at the beginning of the 20th century in France and was to prevail over the former donors because it allowed efficient syncretism.
Its success can only be understood because it is based on the evolution of the child’s place in the family and in society, and on the growth of the toy industry, bolstered by the commercial revolution of department stores. . The New Year’s gifts thus became a commercial toy festival, from the Pont-Neuf market (1815-1835) until the appearance of specialized toy shelves in department stores from 1880.
It was in these years 1880-1885 that Christmas really established itself as a celebration where toys were offered to children, even if the traders aimed at a wider period, including Christmas and New Year’s gifts. Posters, department store catalogs distributed in hundreds of thousands of copies, Christmas displays in their windows, all of this penetrates children’s culture, helping to educate young consumers. There is a democratization of the bourgeois model of consumption, proposed as a new art of living, a “shopping culture”.
The consumption of toys is part of the staging of the religious feast transformed into a myth, but this commercial feast does not replace the family feast, it contributes to it, because without the trade system, the donation system could not develop. . And for the gift of toys to children to become the heart of modern Christmas, we needed a transformation of our imagination, which we owe in large part to German romanticism relayed in France by Baudelaire and Victor Hugo. When Jean Valjean gives Cosette the most beautiful doll in the toy house, it is the child’s pleasure that is at the center of this Christmas.
This analysis was written by Michel Manson, historian, professor emeritus in educational sciences at Sorbonne Paris Nord University.
The original article was published on the website of The Conversation.