Christmas Shopping: A Victorian Thought on It

The Victorian Era involved Christmas shopping during the holiday season, which in turn resulted in newspapers publishing all sorts of articles about shoppers and Christmas gifts. Here is one nineteenth-century person’s version from 1884 and presented here almost verbatim:

“There is no doubt that the graceful custom of giving Christmas presents is often spoken of irreverently as an annually-recurring nuisance. Gifts that were formerly accepted by friends with pleased surprise are now too frequently regarded in the light of personal prerogative, and valued only at their intrinsic worth. The sound of ‘Christmas boxes’ rings like a knell in the ear of paterfamilias for a week before and a month after the festive season. Despite these drawbacks, the gaily-decked shops are apt to prove irresistible, and the result of advertising is shown forth by their crowded aspect and a general demonstration of hurry and brisk business. The complacent cynic who can trust himself inside some of our leading establishments without emptying his purse on behalf of small nieces and nephews, or ruining himself in bonbonnieres or scented gloves for some little white hands may find these fascinating fairylands afford many amusing character-studies.

Christmas shopping

Christmas shopping by bargain nineteenth-century shoppers looking for the right Christmas gifts. Author’s collection.

There are perhaps few prettier sights than the ‘Toy Department.’ It is an experience to turn from the usually chill dampness of the streets, with their dirty pavements, into a world of light and brightness, more resembling Mrs. Ewing’s visionary ‘Land of Lost Toys’ than commonplace shop to the bright eyes of those happy little ones who muster in crowds, perhaps to choose their own gifts, oftener — for child nature is very generous — to spend their little all in presents for Father and Mother. The look so warm and rosy in their bright warm dresses, and make their little purchases with such a pretty air of mystery, that we almost forget the small pale faces of those other children of the town shut out from all this Christmas joy.

Juliana Horatia Ewing, English writer of children stories and “The Land of Lost Toys.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The grown-up buyers do not do their errands with this happy air of unconcern, as anxiety and indecision are plainly visible on most faces. There is the clear-headed lady who, list in hand, cuts her way from place to place and makes her choice expeditiously, usually managing to catch the eye of the busy attendant and conclude her business without loss of ‘change’ or temper. Familiar, to, is the portly form of paterfamilias, dreadfully taken in by the fascinating young ladies who preside on these occasions among the latest novelties, and who is less successful in his purchases than the comfortable lady with her roomy bag, who invariably takes precedence of him. A general sight is the apparition of grandpapa groaning under the weight of an armful of Christmas story books.

Busy and overworked as the assistants in the shops frequently are, they perform their arduous duties with a good temper and readiness which cannot be too highly commended. The annual pleas for the early completion of Christmas shopping cannot be too eloquently put forward for the sake of the tired workers, thoughtlessly debarred from an early start on their well-earned holiday by the careless selfishness of those who delay their present-buying until Christmas Eve. First come, first served, is a proverbial motto which may be remembered in reference to Christmas shopping as well as in connection with many other social requirements.”[1]

Christmas shopping

Detail from a painting of an American family by American painter Eastman Johnson, 1864. Public domain.

Thanks to everyone for your patronage this last year. I hope you have a great Christmas holiday and a great time welcoming in 2020. I’ll see you after the New Year.


  • [1] Christmas Shopping, in Shields Daily News, 20 December 1884, p. 3.

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