Essential to the modern Christmas, these came to the fore in the 1840s and 1850s, replacing a much older tradition of New Year gifts between adults which by then was in decline. The rapid upsurge of Christmas gift-giving had several concurrent causes: the growing child-centredness of the festival; the example of Germany, where small presents were associated with the Christmas tree, the availability of mass-produced toys, especially imported from Germany. At first most presents were for children, but those for adults became ever more popular during the rest of the 19th century. It must be stressed, though, that these were upper- and middle-class habits, which the less well-off could not afford; numerous people who grew up in the first half of the 20th century attest that their Christmas presents at that time were still a handful of nuts and sweets, an orange, and, if they were lucky, a new sixpence.
Some families pin up pillowcases as receptacles for small presents, but most use a stocking. It is not certain when this began, nor whether it is a native or imported custom. Henderson, in 1866, noted that ‘The old custom of hanging up a stocking to receive Christmas presents … has not yet died out in the North of England’, and that friends of his did it ‘without the excuse of a child to be surprised and pleased’ (Henderson, 1866: 50). Yet others writing in 1879 and in the 1880s reported it as unfamiliar (see Santa Claus). One can probably assume continental influence.
See FATHER CHRISTMAS, SANTA CLAUS.