The Giving of Gifts
The giving and receiving of gifts has become one of the central themes of the modern American Christmas. Indeed, a strong holiday selling season often means the difference between a good and a bad year for retailers. There was, however – not so long ago – a time when Christmas involved no gift exchange whatsoever, and in some countries that remains the case today. The union of Christmas and gift giving was a gradual one, and, in fact, the full story of the bright packages beneath the tree begins in the days before the birth of Christ.
Gifts and Celebrations, Old and New
In ancient Rome, gifts were exchanged during the Saturnalia and New Year’s celebrations. At first these gifts were very simple – a few twigs from a sacred grove, statues of gods, food, and the like. Many gifts were in the form of vegetation in honor of the fertility goddess Strenia. During the Northern European Yule, fertility was celebrated with gifts made from wheat products, such as bread and alcohol. As time went on, gifts became more elaborate and less edible.
Like many customs, gift exchange was difficult to get rid of, even as Christianity spread and gained official status. Early church leaders tried to outlaw it, but the people cherished it too much to let it go. So instead, as with other custom, church leaders sought a Christian justification for the practice. They found it in the Magi’s act of bearing gifts to the infant Jesus, and in the concept that Christ was a gift from God to the world, bringing in turn the gift of redemption and everlasting life.
While most giving was done on a voluntary basis, some leaders did their best to ensure a plentiful season for themselves. One year, Emperor Caligula of Rome declared that he would be receiving presents on New Year’s Day; he then ridiculed gifts he deemed inadequate or inappropriate. And Henry III closed down the merchants of England one December because he was not impressed with the amount of their monetary gifts.
After Christianity had established itself throughout Europe, Christmas celebrations were quiet common; gift giving as a component of Christmas Day, however, was not. The concept of a gift exchange on the holiday itself remained more the exception than the rule, and much of the gift giving at that time was confined to New Year’s, as in the days of the ancient Romans. Some countries, particularly those under Spanish cultural influence, saved gift giving for Epiphany (January 6), the day marking the visit of the Magi to Jesus.
England Leads the Way
Even through roots of the Christmas present extend to ancient times, the gift-giving tradition of today owes perhaps the most to Victorian England. The Victorians, who brought a renewed warmth and spirit to Christmas after it had experienced a long period of decline, made the idea of family (and particularly children) an integral part of the celebration. Also important to them was the act of helping the less fortunate in society. Friendliness and charity filled many hearts during their Christmas season, so giving gifts was a natural.
No one personifies “It’s the thought that counts” more than the Victorians. To them, the act of giving was far more important than the present, and the ultimate reason for giving a gift was as an expression of kindness, a sentiment that tied in nicely with the historical tradition of the holiday.
Accordingly, Victorians surrounded the act of gift giving with a great deal of ingenuity and merriment; simply tearing into a cache of wrapped boxes would have been to miss the point. Far more thought and preparation were in order during the holiday season.
Cobweb parties, for instance, were lots of messy fun. Each family member was assigned a color, then shown to a room crisscrossed with yarn of various colors. They then had to follow their assigned color through the web of yarn until they reached the present tied to the end. Yarn was also used to wrap small gifts; The ball was unwound, then rewound to conceal the present.
The Christmas pie was another favorite diversion, although it was not exactly edible. Small gifts were concealed in a large bowl of grain. After Christmas dinner, everyone gathered around the pie and took turns taking a spoonful. Whatever treat was in your spoonful was yours to keep.
Though Victorian gift-giving was filled with the spirit of Christmas, much of the actual exchange was still done on New Year’s Day. It was only in the late 1800s that the custom was finally transferred to Christmas.
Across the pond, Christmas was taking a similar shape in America, where the Victorians greatly influenced the American Christmas, including a gift giving America expanded on the concept with the addition of Santa Claus, however, whose forerunner, St. Nicholas, was legendary for his generosity. The association with gifts was a natural one, and soon, Santa or one of his earlier incarnations became responsible for the presents left in an ever-increasing number of stockings.
(Jeffrey, Yvonne; The Everything Family Christmas Book)