Toothpaste may seem like an unusual item on a Christmas wish list - but over a century ago, it wasn't so strange. An exhibition in Dortmund unveils the touching and sometimes comical history of holiday wish lists.
Children have left instructions for Christmas gift-givers for over a century
In some countries, Christmas presents are exchanged on the morning of December 25, while most Europeans give gifts on the evening of the 24th. No matter when they're unwrapped, it's hard to imagine Christmas without presents.
The tradition, however, is relatively new. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that gift-giving was associated with Christmas in Germany. Before that, St. Nicholas brought presents to well-behaved children on December 6.
With the advent of gifts, it was only inevitable that children would help the givers - real and imagined - out with wish lists.
"The development of the Christmas gift-giving tradition mainly had to do with the fact that more presents and toys were available as a result of industrialization," historian Isolde Parussel told Deutsche Welle.
A Christmas gift table may have looked like this in the 19th century
Of course, not everyone could afford the new toys, but that didn't keep children from writing out their wishes.
Old toys made just like new
Parussel is behind the exhibition "…Bring Us Many Nice Things," which is currently on show at the Museum of Art and Cultural History in the western German city of Dortmund. Over 100 holiday wish lists are on display, along with decorative gift tables, toys and festive Christmas trees from the past century.
Most of the items were collected from private households following a request published in German newspapers.
Some of the wish lists are addressed to St. Nicholas or Santa Claus, but many were written to the 'Christkind' - a sprite-like child, usually depicted with blond hair and angelic wings.
In one list from 1899, a young girl hoped for "a dress for [my doll] Fraenzchen, a set of colored pencils, a sailor's hat for me" but also "calling cards and a tube of Calodont tooth paste." At the end of the 19th century, tooth paste in tubes was extremely modern - something extraordinary even for a little girl.
As the end of the girl's letter reveals, gifts weren't necessarily expected to be new. "And then, dear Christkind, [my dolls] Siegfried and Dori need to be taken to the hospital. Dori's hair is growing very sparsely on her head and her limbs are very droopy. Both of these things need to be fixed," wrote the girl.
Despite having to organize presents for so many children, the Christkind occasionally found time to write back. One such letter - composed on a typewriter and dated Christmas Eve, 1911 - is included in the exhibition; Parussel suspects, of course, that it was written by the parents. "The angels say that you and [your sister] Staenzerl weren't very good doll mothers this year," read the letter: "Under these circumstances, entrusting you with a real baby seems to be too much of a responsibility."
Isolde Parussel curated the Dortmund exhibition
Apparently, the girls had wished for a sibling - a gift their parents apparently weren't yet willing to provide.
Some things don't change
The letters and lists offer insights into the everyday lives of various generations. Children from the post-World War II generation wanted nothing more than a warm hat or a notebook for school. One short generation later, one girl asked for a knee-length skirt, according to the trend of the time.
The most recent wish list in the collection is from 2008. Jascha from Dortmund had cut out pictures from catalogues - complete with price tags - to illustrate his list, which mainly consisted of electronics.
Jascha's wishes are expensive, but, when taking the standard of living into account, they're not necessarily more valuable than the things children asked for a century ago, said Parussel.
"You can't necessarily say that this child is just focused on consumption," she said. He put just as much effort into his wish list, writing it neatly and decorating it with colored pencils."
Author: Sola Huelsewig (kjb)
Editor: Sam Edmonds