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The Gallup Brain: Gifts of Holidays Past

The Gallup Brain: Gifts of Holidays Past

by Linda Lyons

Gifts have been synonymous with Christmas since St. Nicholas -- a 4th-century bishop known for his love of children and generosity toward the needy -- allegedly tossed bags of gold through a poor man's window. While few people are lucky enough to find a sack of gold under their tree on Christmas morning, a journey through the Gallup Brain brings to light other gift ideas and ideas about gift-giving that Americans have had throughout the years.

Appliances or Jewels?

In 1954, Gallup asked, "If you could have your choice, what ONE present would you most like to have for Christmas?" The survey revealed that among women, the No. 1 choice was household appliances -- vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, toasters, or refrigerators. Modern appliances were Christmas miracles for postwar housewives, who remembered their mothers carting blocks of ice for the "icebox," and beating dust from the living room carpet on the clothesline in the yard.

Now that such modern conveniences are taken for granted, it's not clear whether women would be as eager to consider them desirable gifts (although Gallup has not re-asked the "favorite gift" question in recent years). Asked last week if she'd like to have a vacuum cleaner for Christmas, Delores Richert, an executive assistant at a television station in Pittsburgh, says, "Goodness, no -- anything but a vacuum cleaner! … I'd rather have diamonds, rubies, or even a box of candy."

Cars, Cars, Cars

After World War II, during which car production and sales were halted for a number of years, there was a postwar boom. It's not surprising that in 1954, the No. 1 gift that American men longed for was a new car. That longing most likely still holds for many men today -- in part because, unlike household appliances, cars are likely to offer pleasure and contribute to men's sense of identity. "I'd really like a big SUV that gets 35 miles per gallon," says Richard Bannon, an insurance consultant from Philadelphia.

Don't Forget Rover

People aren't the only recipients of Christmas gifts. In 1990, Gallup asked pet owners if they ever buy toys or presents for their pets; 65% said yes. In 1996, the questions were more specific. Dog owners were asked not only if they bought gifts for their dogs, but if they hung a stocking for Rover. Sixty-three percent said they bought gifts and 40% hung stockings. Cat owners also weighed in: 58% said they bought their cats Christmas presents and 37% hung kitty stockings.

Giving and Receiving

In the United States, it's certainly easy to get caught up in the Christmas shopping frenzy. Yet when Americans were asked, "What do you like best about Christmas?" in 1949, just 13% said "giving and receiving" presents. The thing Americans liked best about Christmas that year was "the happy spirit it gives people."

More recent data suggest that most people would prefer to keep the Christmas gift-giving tradition. In 1994, Gallup asked, "Would you enjoy Christmas more, or enjoy it less, if people did not exchange gifts as part of the holiday?" Twenty-eight percent said they would enjoy it more if they did not exchange gifts, while 52% said they would like it less and 18% said it would make no difference. In 2000, the percentage saying they would prefer not to give gifts went up to 42%, but then fell to 34% in 2001.

Peace on Earth

Sadly, some ideas about Christmas gifts are achingly familiar. When asked what present she would most like to have for Christmas, Connie Hazelwood, a nurse from Alabama, had a simple request. "I have just one big wish for Christmas -- that people would stop killing one another all over the globe. Imagine what the world would be like if humans would start treating one another with respect. I don't think that gift would cost very much and it sure would change everything."

That response mirrors responses to the same question asked during World War II. In 1944, a Gallup Poll found that the No. 1 gift people wanted was an end to the war, and the return of loved ones away fighting in it.

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