How a Good Book Became the ‘Richest’ of Holiday Gifts

As long as people have been buying gifts for the holidays, they have been buying books. Books offer infinite variety, are easily wrapped, can be personalized for the recipient and displayed as a signifier of one’s own identity. They are, in many respects, the quintessential Christmas — or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or other December celebration — gift.

This has held true since the very beginning of Christmas as we know it today — a domestic holiday typically celebrated indoors, with family, that prominently features the exchange of presents. “They come in greater numbers every day,” The New York Times reported of the increasingly crowded shops in 1895. “The people who are buying books, the people who are thinking of buying books, and the people who are wondering if there is anything more satisfactory in the world of Christmas delights.”

In fact, this phenomenon can be traced back even further, to the holiday’s more raucous roots.

The Yuletide season has been one of celebration since long before there was a Yule to celebrate. In early agricultural societies, the end of the harvest offered a brief window with an abundance of fresh produce and meat, and not much work to do.

In this topsy-turvy season, the normal rules of society were relaxed, and generosity — particularly on the part of the most fortunate — was encouraged. These festivities have gone by many names; in ancient Rome, it was Saturnalia. And from those earliest days, when people gave, they gave — in their own way — books.

In a collection of “Epigrams,” the first-century poet Martial published a (very extensive) list of suggestions for “The Presents Made to Guests at Feasts.” “This is before the book as we know it exists,” said Leah Henrickson, a lecturer in digital media at the University of Leeds. And yet among the togas and lyres on this Saturnalian gift guide are several texts on parchment, from Virgil and Cicero to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”

The Christian church co-opted Saturnalia when, in the fourth century, it began promoting Christmas, explained Stephen Nissenbaum, an emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of “The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday.” Even after the pagan rituals were transformed into a late-December religious rite, gifts continued to figure into the holiday, largely as tokens bestowed by nobles upon peasants — often finer food or drink normally reserved for the wealthy — rather than presents exchanged among family members.

For centuries, Christmas maintained the bacchanalian spirit of its predecessors. The holiday was so debaucherous that the Puritans tried to suppress it: From 1659 to 1681, celebrating Christmas in Massachusetts was illegal. But in the early 19th century, things began to shift.

“Christmas moves indoors,” Nissenbaum said. “That’s when it starts to become the family holiday we recognize. And it is transformed from this season of misrule into a domestic holiday not by the church, but by capitalism.”

Wealthy merchants had grown tired of dealing with the marauding bands of revelers who paraded through the city — banging pans, smashing windows and generally causing a ruckus that was not good for business — and they embarked on a campaign of rebranding Christmas as a domestic celebration. A key component: the invention of modern-day Santa Claus, in large part via Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” also known as “The Night Before Christmas.”

With the move inside, Christmas became a family gifting holiday, and the nature of these presents shifted. “When you change from giving gifts to serfs or beggars to your kids and your spouse, you can’t just give them the stuff you already have in your household,” Nissenbaum explained. “Your family has always eaten the best your house has, so you have to go out of your way to make it clearly a luxury item.” And in the early 1800s, books, which were typically quite expensive, fit this bill.

A vintage holiday ad for books from The New York Times Book Review.Credit…The New York Times

Booksellers were quick to respond to the burgeoning demand. The first American advertisement for Christmas gifts, Nissenbaum found, was placed by a Salem, Mass., bookshop in 1806.

By the mid-1800s, many publishers were beginning to issue books specifically to be given as gifts during the holidays — from “St. Nicholas’s Book” for children to “Literary Gem,” “Flowers of Loveliness” and “Affection’s Gift” for adults. These special editions were beautifully designed. “This is the season of Book-blossoms,” The Times reported in 1851. “The Holidays act upon books like April upon trees.” The article continued, “Thousands there are who rightly deem the richest present they can make to a friend to be a good book; and they naturally wish for it outward comeliness, as well as intrinsic worth.”

A book of any kind was a rare luxury for most consumers, but a gift book, tasked with communicating one’s affection toward the receiver, had to be particularly special. These books “purport to represent authenticity and sincerity, and yet they were by definition the most avant-garde products of commercial culture,” Nissenbaum said. “They are meant to be purchased for the sole purpose of being given away. I don’t know of anything that came before that was designed like that.” Often, the books themselves were named for other gift-worthy luxury items, such as jewels (“Amethyst,” “Diadem,” “The Pearl”) or flowers (“Christmas Blossoms,” “Rose Bud,” “Hyacinth”).

Buying a beautifully bound edition signified one’s own social status, as well as the esteem in which one held the intended recipient. “‘Gift book’ should be considered a charming designation,” The Times declared in 1914. “It implies a graceful compliment to the book buyer, it implies that he is too modest, too unselfish to buy richly decorated volumes for himself, that he will buy them only to give to his friends.”

A vintage ad urging shoppers to consider buying books for “names on your list for whom you despair of finding just what you want.”Credit…The New York Times

Nineteenth-century publishers encouraged this relationship to book-giving by including presentation plates in gift books, which the giver was invited to personalize by filling in the blanks: “From ___, As a token of ___, To ___.”

In choosing a particular volume or inscribing a message, the giving of a book “becomes a deeply personal activity, despite the fact that book production is a heavily industrialized activity,” said Shafquat Towheed, a senior lecturer at the Open University and the director of the Reading Experience Database (RED), which explores five centuries of the British people’s relationship to books through newspapers, letters, playbills, graffiti and other documented sources.

Choosing which book to give was another way of demonstrating how well you knew the recipient. “Though almost any book may be a suitable gift if given to the right person, it is precisely that little ‘if’ that calls for discrimination on the part of the giver,” The Times reported in 1923.

Selecting the right book to give is an act of empathy, the paper continued: “It is necessary to consider carefully the tastes of the person who is to receive it and select something that he will read with pleasure and give an honored place among the treasures on his bookshelves.”

Newspapers and magazines offered curated lists to help guide book-shoppers in their choice. The Times itself has recommended holiday books to its readers since its first year of publication; the top picks for 1851 included a “gorgeously attractive” collection of Shakespeare’s greatest works and an “exceedingly handsome” volume of Aesop’s fables.

An astutely chosen book, especially when given by a cherished person, becomes a part of the recipient’s identity — both psychologically and physically, as an object on display in his or her home. “It’s a very resilient gift,” Towheed said. “Even if you might not read it immediately, it will sit there on your shelf. And long after the gift giver and receiver have gone away, the book will still be there.”

The RED includes many testimonials about the impact of gifted books. In 1906, Virginia Woolf (under her maiden name) wrote to her friend Violet Dickinson to thank her for a book she had been given that Christmas season. “I am reading your Keats, with the pleasure of one handling great luminous stones,” she said. “I rise and shout in ecstasy, and my eyes brim with such pleasure that I must drop the book and gaze from the window. It is a beautiful edition.”

American literature offers examples as well. Take Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” which opens with Jo March’s declaration that “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” She is then delighted to wake up on Christmas morning and discover, tucked beneath her pillow, a book with a red cover, just for her.

“She woke Meg with a ‘Merry Christmas,’ and bade her see what was under her pillow,” Alcott writes. “A green-covered book appeared, with the same picture inside, and a few words written by their mother, which made their one present very precious in their eyes.”

A 1906 ad urges finicky shoppers to consult a catalog that contains the titles of more than 2,600 books.Credit…The New York Times

By the early 20th century, the ornate gift books of the Victorian era had fallen out of fashion, as the rise of wood pulp paper made books as a whole much more affordable. But books as gifts never faded in popularity, no matter the circumstances. “There could be no better year than this to give books for Christmas,” The Times reported in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. “In a world tumultuous with changes and alarms the realm of reading has values that are more than ever appealing.”

To this day, the rush of consumers to buy holiday books — and of publishers to provide ample offerings with which to tempt them — continues. In Iceland, which approaches this end-of-year phenomenon with particular gusto, they refer to it as the “jolabokaflod,” or the “Christmas book flood.”

And while there may be fewer gilded editions on offer at your local bookstore than in the 1850s, there is still a tendency to promote and purchase beautifully designed hardcover books as gifts, rather than paperbacks, used copies or, most unlikely of all, e-books.

“We don’t really need books anymore — we have other ways of reading, writing, communicating and sharing information, expressing love and affection for other people through gifts, or even expressing our own identity, which is part of the function of a bookshelf,” said Jessica Pressman, a professor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State University and the author of “Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age.” “We can do all of that digitally. And yet we still keep coming back to the physical book.”

And in many ways this affinity for books as gifts extends well beyond the physical object itself. “Think about medieval times, or Greece, or Rome,” Pressman said. “To celebrate an occasion, you didn’t come with a codex. You came with a story.”

The book, she explained, has always been a tool of community. And the holidays are wrapped up in this tradition, from the retelling of the miracle of Hanukkah, to Christmas theatricals re-enacting Jesus’ birth, to communal readings of “The Night Before Christmas.”

So it is perhaps no wonder that this season of storytelling has become so bound up in the giving of a book.

“The stuff that books hold, that is our culture, that is our cultural memory,” said Henrickson of the University of Leeds. “And we keep coming back to them because that is how we know ourselves.”

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