By 1800 Christmas was no longer illegal, but it was just as rowdy, or more, as it had been in long ago England, sort of halfway between Spring Break and Mardi Gras, one authority I read said. The poor, probably egged on by a criminal element, demanded entrance into the homes of those in better financial shape, along with money and food, often stooping so far as vandalism, looting, assault, and rape. It was evidently like this all through the area. On Christmas Day 1828, the rioting was so bad that the residents of New York City called for the formation of their first police force. It wasn't until later in the nineteenth century that Christmas evolved into the family-focused holiday we know it as today. In fact, it wasn't even declared a federal holiday until 1870.
We may think that earlier behavior is beyond us, but let me ask you, have you ever been to a Black Friday Sale? "Between 2006 and 2018…44 Black Friday incidents in America left 11 dead and 109 injured" (nypost.com). And sometimes we aren't much better in our own homes.
I have only seen it once and hope to never again. We were guests of others on Christmas Day and their method of passing out gifts went like this: One person starting picking up presents, read the name, passed it to its recipient and continued, about one every five seconds. In five minutes it was over with. Everyone else was sitting there panting with exertion amid piles of crumpled wrapping paper and snarled up ribbon, and no one knew who got what from whom. Meanwhile, my poor boys were still opening up what were far fewer, far less expensive presents, and looking up at the folks around them with a look of befuddlement. "That's not how it's supposed to be," was clearly written on their faces.
So how was it supposed to be? We never had much money growing up, but my mother was still careful to teach us the point of gift-giving—it was to do kind things for others, not amass things for oneself. She taught us to listen to one another all year long, to make note—sometimes literally—of things different ones of us needed or mentioned wanting, usually something that would make life a little easier. None of us ever wished for the expensive and unattainable. What was the point? And then a couple of weeks before Christmas, the four of us went to the Mall, my sister and I with money carefully saved from our allowances and birthday gifts. We divided up and I went with my father to buy for my mother and my sister, while she went with our mother to buy for me and our father. Then we met in the middle of the concourse at a predetermined time and switched companions in order to finish our shopping. We were usually so excited about what we had gotten each other it was difficult to keep the secret.
Then on Christmas morning each one in turn got to choose a gift to give to another. We all sat and watched that person open the gift. The joy, the excitement, the pleasure on the other person's face was as much a part of the gift to us as the gift to the receiver. We had very few gifts under that tree, but that gift giving process lasted far longer than our neighbors' who were soon out riding new bikes or scooters and hauling out boxes of trash while we were still sitting there enjoying the process of giving as well as receiving.
I passed that on to my boys. We were in the same boat as my parents in their early days—not much money and few gifts. But they have both told me that choosing the gifts and watching their opening was always their favorite part of Christmas. I still see that in them as mature adults, looking to give, looking to see to the needs of others, looking for ways to share what they have. My mother did that for me and she has now done it for them, too, through me. I think I see it in my grandchildren as well.
Christmas does not have to be about materialism. What it does have to be about is this: It is more blessed to give than to receive, (Acts 20:35). Don't let your Christmas morning be a feeding frenzy of piranha in the river "Gimme." Make it a point to take time and savor your gifts to others. My mother thought that was what it was all about, and that is a gift I truly treasure.