Like much of our modern Christmas, the idea of festive gift giving really took off in the 1800s.
The main day for presents had now moved to Christmas Day itself. Still, at the start of the Victorian era gifts were likely to be small, such as fruit, nuts, sweets and small handmade presents. These were hung on the Christmas tree, another aspect of the festive season popularised during Queen Victoria’s reign.
But, as the industrial revolution took hold, Victorian entrepreneurs and shopkeepers saw the potential of Christmas. In 1881 the weekly journal ‘Lady’s Pictorial’ described shops transformed with gifts:
‘Christmas cards in almost every window, in the companionship of the attractions of the toy-seller, the wares of the draper, the irresistible temptations of the milliner, and of their more legitimate comrades in the show-cases of the stationer – from everywhere have these pretty little tokens of goodwill and kindly thoughts been peering out and seeking the attention of the passer-by.’
Soon luxuries such as games, dolls, books and clockwork toys became more affordable to the middle classes. Presents started to go under the tree and the idea of Christmas as a magical time for children was truly born.
However, poorer children were still lucky to get some fruit and a few nuts as a present. These would be hung in their stocking – which itself became a custom in the second half of the 19th century.
The Victorian era was also when the modern idea of Father Christmas was born. He was a mixture of the Christian Saint Nicholas, traditional figures of good cheer and a Dutch legend called Sinterklaas. His appearance as “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” came from Clement C Moore’s 1822 poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’, also known as ‘Twas the night before Christmas’. By 1888, JP Robert of Stratford, West Ham had opened the first Santa’s Grotto in his store. Now children could tell Santa in person what they wanted for Christmas.