Of all the classic traditions of Christmas, gift-giving is many people’s favorites and often becomes the centerpiece of any holiday get-together — whether that’s taking a few minutes to exchange gifts before the Christmas party or the family sitting down to have a gift-exchange game like white elephant. Of course, you also have the Christmas morning rush to a tree laden with gifts.
But this tradition of gift-giving had to have started somewhere, right? If not, wouldn’t every holiday be celebrated with gifts — who doesn’t love getting presents? That’s certainly the case, as gift-giving around the holidays is an old tradition stretching back thousands of years through different religions, eras, and cultures.
The Christian Origins of Christmas Gifts
Of course, the most direct influence on Christmas gift-giving is from the Christmas story itself. Those familiar with the story of Christmas, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, will also know the story of the Three Magi. Their imagery is often central to the depictions of the birth of Jesus, in manger nativities, art, and songs. Many of you will also know that they are believed to have given the first Christmas gifts when they gave gold, frankincense, and myrrh — all extremely valuable at the time, but not great gifts for a baby. We’re still not sure who these wise men were — were they kings, wise men, astrologers, or magi? We don’t know a ton about them — we’re not even sure how many there were — though later writers would give them an extensive backstory.
The imagery of the Three Magi is often central to the depictions of the birth of Jesus, in manger nativities, art, and songs.
Each Christmas, we celebrate this part of the Christmas story by sharing gifts of our own. While the gift-giving duties are often taken by Santa Claus and his helpers, the tie to the wise men is more direct in Spain and many Latin American countries. Instead of on Christmas, gifts are given and opened on the Feast of the Epiphany, the day the magi gave their gifts to the baby Jesus. If you’re curious how Santa became the primary gift-giver for millions around the world, don’t miss our post “Why Do We Celebrate That? Santa Claus and His Helpers!”
Ancient & Non-Christian Influences
Giving gifts during the holiday season draws from traditions beyond Christianity and an unknown quantity of wise men who may or may not have been kings. The Roman Saturnalia, deeply embedded in the DNA of Christmas, also had a gift-giving tradition. These tended to be smaller gifts given for good luck, like during Saturnalia. The most common gifts given during Saturnalia were wax candles called cerei, which symbolized light returning to the world as the days grew longer. The other popular gifts at the time were called sigillaria, small clay or earthen figurines used as decoration and ornaments.
The Roman Saturnalia, deeply embedded in the DNA of Christmas, also had a gift-giving tradition.
Similarly, the tradition of wassailing could tie into the gift-giving tradition of Christmas. One of the common ways wassailing was observed was when peasants would visit the home of their lord for a seasonal ves heill salute. In return, their lord would thank them for their service with gifts of food, wassail drink, and even money.
Of all the influences for our modern gift-giving tradition, the most significant is the time of the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian era. Prior to this time, the main focus of Christmas was religion and food. You may have received small gifts, but it was nowhere near where it is today. Around this time, the idea of childhood as we understand it became crystalized. At the same time, many of the positive social changes of the Industrial Revolution led to more leisure time, disposable income, and an increased quality of life. At first, however, this wealth was consolidated and working conditions were rough. This created the atmosphere in which Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. Dickens was a frequent social critic in stories such as Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby, and in A Christmas Carol, he takes aim at greed and emotional coldness during the holiday season. The popularity of his book would greatly influence and define what we now call the Christmas spirit as one of generosity and good will to all.
Dickens was a frequent social critic in stories such as Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby, and in A Christmas Carol, he takes aim at greed and emotional coldness during the holiday season.
Of course, the modern connection between Christmas and gifts predates A Christmas Carol, as we can see from the classic poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (which predates Dickens’ story by 20 years) and The 12 Days of Christmas (published in 1780). The roots of the commercialization of Christmas in the United States may run even deeper into the Colonial Era. But A Christmas Carol and the possibilities of the Industrial Revolution helped take it to a new level. As more people had money to spend and it became easier to mass produce gifts, more entrepreneurs were able to sell Christmas gifts to consumers and their kids. This trend would continue into the early 20th Century and the post-World War II economic boom, when commercialism soared to new heights.
Complaining about the over-commercialization of Christmas is also nothing new. This subject has been routinely broached each holiday season since gift-giving started becoming the central focus of the holiday in the mid-1800s. In a way, complaining about consumerism at Christmas is as old as consumerism at Christmas itself! That in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If the focus is on what you get and not on the joy of giving and the love of those you’re giving to or getting from, it may be a bit of a problem. As long as the joy of sharing and giving is central to the holiday, the spirit of Christmas — one that people of many cultures and religions now enjoy — will remain strong.
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While gift-giving has long been a part of yuletide celebrations, it’s important to remember the context of those gifts. They weren’t the equivalent of a thousand-dollar piece of jewelry or a gaming system. They weren’t the hottest new toy on the market. For much of its history, a suitable Christmas gift was a warm bowl of wassail as a thank you for a hard year’s work or a candle signaling the longer days to come. These gifts didn’t cost as much, but they were filled with meaning and care. When you’re giving or getting this year, it helps to remember that’s what the holidays are about — remembering those you love and showing them you care with a tangible sign. With our own year winding down, we want to remember you, our readers, for sharing yet another holiday season with us. From all of us at Medicareful Living, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
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