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culture

Historical Holiday Hints: ‘Tis the Season for Gifts

Tips on making people-pleasing presents, plus tales from the retail frontlines of past Christmas fads.

Source: the News, December 13, 1911.

“There are two kinds of people looking for Christmas gifts,” the Telegram noted 80 years ago. “Those who know what they want and those who don’t, and they both seem to be in difficulty.” With less than two weeks to go before presents are unwrapped, both types of gift hunters may be showing signs of panic as they look for the perfect present. Have no fear: we have some gift-giving suggestions from the past, along with the hazards of shopping for the toy everyone else wants.

A century ago, the News offered many creative homemade gift ideas built around picture postcards. Forgot to buy a specialty calendar? Make your own by using appropriately themed sets based on the recipient’s interests, from pets to “almond-eyed” girls. Need to decorate a manly den? String up brightly coloured hunting scenes set against red or black paper. Lacking in candle shades? Half-a-dozen cards nimbly cut will do the trick.

Who appreciates postcard-based gifts the most? Your invalid friends, apparently:

Nothing will delight them more than a judiciously chosen pack of postcards, all stamped and tied up with bright ribbons. Select a few cards with birthday and New Year greetings on, several with messages of friendship, and the rest bearing scenes of the home-town. These will be a boon to anyone confined to the house and dislikes to bother others about small matters.

Children with Christmas presents during a photoshoot for Liberty magazine, 1950s or 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 1944.

What might not have been a small matter to a stuck-at-home ill child by the mid-1960s, or at least not a small matter to their parents, was to keep up with other kids who received the season’s hottest toys from Santa Claus. According to Telegram writer Stella McKay, this was unnecessary, as kids were “often satisfied with homemade playthings. They may prefer them since they are different from their friends’ toys.” Citing a government pamphlet, Play for Preschoolers, McKay suggested handcrafted gifts that would be the envy of the neighbourhood. Suggestions included tin can rattles and stuffed-sock dolls for boys and girls. The pamphlet provided full instructions for building accompanying gifts like a doll cradle that would appeal to today’s DIYers and recyclers:

A large fruit basket, with the handle removed, makes a cosy bed for a baby doll. Remove the hooks from two wide wooden coat hangers. Use screws to fasten a hanger at each end of the basket, for rockers. Mattress and pillow covers can be made from pieces of an old sheet. Fill them with any soft material. Make sheets and pillow cases from the same worn sheet.

The effort put into a homemade gift saves parents from dealing with other human beings during the rush to find the perfect toy, especially when it comes to the season’s trendiest items. The quest for the item everyone wants has caused normally sane adults to engage in wrestling matches on the retail floor. “Get ready to rumble” would have been an appropriate battle cry when Cabbage Patch Kid mania hit Toronto in 1983. Seasonal goodwill toward fellow humans vanished whenever retailers received a precious shipment of the adoptable dolls. At one store in Mississauga, fights occurred when customers grabbed dolls the way diners pile crab legs on their plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet. “Santa Claus himself would have dived behind the cashier’s desk for cover,” noted a Globe and Mail editorial. To avoid such scenes, Eaton’s pulled the dolls from its ads, while Pascal Stores placed notices in newspapers to announce that they wouldn’t have any more in stock until Leap Day 1984.

Joy Taylor of Scarborough introduced herself as a “short, athletic grandma of 60” when she wrote to the Star about her quest for the bald-headed male Cabbage Patch Kid her granddaughter wanted. After unsuccessfully checking several stores, she heard about a shipment arriving at the Cedarbrae Mall branch of Simpsons at 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning.

The door opens and in I run. Where are they? Over there in the corner. Good. Suddenly I’m jammed into the corner as monstrous women crush me, climb over me. I’m too old for this. What am I doing here? I panic and I scream “Let me out! You’re smothering me!” The manager clears a path for me and presses a box into my hands. I can breathe once again but I look in disgust—a redhead in jeans. A woman trades me for a blonde-haired one and I throw all caution to the winds as I say “Any trades for a blonde for a bald boy.” A woman grabs my arm and there it is, more precious than diamonds or gold. Now I know how Columbus felt discovering America.

Taylor avoided injuries while caught in the mayhem. She ended her letter by hoping that toy companies would think of people like her when promoting hot toys and that she could convince her granddaughter that other, well-stocked toys would be equally nice to receive on Christmas morning. “To those of you still looking,” Taylor advised, “I say put on your armor and keep trying.”

Try as some parents did, they couldn’t purchase a genuine Cabbage Patch Kid. When extreme options—such as flying the Europe to secure a doll or paying up to $300 for one via the classifieds—were out of the question, they could pick up a pattern at the nearest department or fabric store make their own facsimile. Even these went quickly: Simpsons reported that Sew-a-Doll kits disappeared as fast as their Cabbage Patch Kids stock. At least there weren’t any reports of shoppers pepper spraying each other over doll-making instruction sheets.

Additional material from the November 19, 1983, and December 16, 1983, editions of the Globe and Mail; the December 13, 1911, edition of the News; the November 10, 1983, November 30, 1983, and December 16, 1983, editions of the Toronto Star; and the December 20, 1932, and December 19, 1966, editions of the Telegram.

Read the first post in our Historical Holiday Hints series here.

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