History Lesson: Society for Prevention of Useless Giving Tried to Save the Christmas Spirit

Theodore Roosevelt himself became president of the SPUG in 1912

The loss of the Christmas spirit and the conversion of the holiday into a commercial practice have brought the same concern for decades, history shows, but the attitude toward the issue has changed significantly in time: whereas now people only tell their discontent to one another, a century ago, Americans waged a war meant to turn Christmas back into what it was always meant to be.

Exactly 101 years ago, August Belmont, an American philanthropist, established The Society for the Prevention of Useless Gift Giving (SPUG), a profane custom, by that time extremely largely spread already.

His intention was to “eliminate, by co-operative effort, the custom of giving indiscriminately at Christmas, and to further in every way the true Christian spirit of unselfishness and independent thought, good-will, and sympathetic understanding of the real needs of others,” Belmont declared, as reported by Tree Hugger.

On November 21, the members of the society gathered at the Metropolitan Life Building in a rally meant to persuade people to give up the useless Christmas shopping.

Also, with the 10-cent membership dues put together, SPUG pioneers funded the first community Christmas tree ceremony in the United States, an action intended to emphasize what Christmas truly meant.

Although just an individual initiative originally, by the end of 1912, the Society gathered supporters from all around the country, its leader becoming the American president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt.

His leadership was “not only appropriate, it was inevitable. No other American knows quite so much as Col. Roosevelt about the art and practice of giving, useless and otherwise,” the December 14, 1912 issue of New York Times read.

Other branches of the society were created around the country, one of them being founded in Washington D.C. by president Thomas Woodrow Wilson's daughter, Margaret Wilson.

However, despite the society's fame and its long-term activity – it was maintained until the 1940s – its actual results in the abolishment of the practice of giving useless gifts on Christmas on a large scale could hardly be deemed efficient.

It might have had some influence in the way the members’ families and their close social groups regarded Christmas, but not more. Its noble spirit got swallowed by a profoundly consumerist society, just like Christmas did before.

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