25 Days of Christmas: Day 13 ~ Gift Giving

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.

Festive Fact

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.

Holiday Helper

EnglandChristmas1800sThe 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)

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25 Days of Christmas: Day 11 ~ Santa Claus & Traditions of Christmas, Part I

Santa Claus

SantaClausHe’s called Santa Claus, Sinter Klaas, Father Christmas, and Père Noël, among other names, but the title of St. Nicholas comes closest to the historical roots of this giver of gifts. Although modern Santa’s appearance and traditions spring largely from the last two centuries of popular story and art, the legends associated with him begin with a real person on the shores of the fourth-century Mediterranean Sea. Over the years, he’s evolved into an engaging combination of reality and myth whose hearty, “Ho, ho, ho!” proves impossible to resist each Christmas season.

The Traditions of Christmas

Many of the best-loved Christmas traditions come from the original stories of the Bible. In fact, the gospels of Luke and Matthew hold the keys to explaining the ways in which many people celebrate the holiday today – from the Christmas star that led the Wise Men to the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born to the Nativity displays that recreate the scene inside the stable. While customs have changed over the centuries, many traditions still provide a direct link to the time of Jesus’ birth.

Christkind

Christkind, the German name for the Christ Child, originally referred directly to the Holy Infant Jesus himself, who was said to bring gifts to children in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Pennsylvania Dutch region on Christmas Eve. (Other forms of the name are Christkindl, Christkindli, and Chriskinddlein.)

Christkind

Christkind

Later, the name came to stand for the embodiment of the Child’s spirit, in angelic form, that brought the gifts in his place. Veiled in white, with gold wings upon his shoulders, he arrives secretly, often through an open window. When he is through with his work, he rings a bell to notify all that he presents have arrived. Over the years, the name has evolved to Kris Kringle, but contrary to popular belief, the Christkind is not another form of Santa Claus.

Special Days

For most of the churches that follow Christianity, Christmas is only one day – albeit a very important one – in an entire season that focuses on the birth of Jesus. The season begins approximately four weeks before Christmas Day, and carries on through January and even into February. Each of the special days within the season brings with it an opportunity to reflect on the message of peace, joy, and goodwill.

The Season of Advent

For most western Christian churches, Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The word advent originates with the Latin word for “coming” and indeed, this season of preparation is a solemn time to make ready for the coming of Christ and Christmas.

AdventCandlesAs a way to mark the passage of time, churches often use an Advent Wreath or candle arrangement that contains five candles. On the first Sunday of Advent, one candle is lit; on the second, two candles are lit; and so on. These candles, which can be various colors depending on the church, often represent such ideas as hope, peace, love, and joy. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the fifth candle is lit, representing Christ, the light of the world.

Christmas Eve

The day before Christmas Day is one of great anticipation, and is marked in many countries and cultures. The most popular Christmas Mass for Roman Catholics is the midnight Mass, a tradition that began in the early 400s. Midnight Mass is traditionally held at midnight, as Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day, because it’s believed that Jesus was born at midnight. In today’s churches, both Catholic and Protestant, services may be held at midnight or earlier, often incorporating carols and the Nativity.

Of course, the night of Christmas Eve is also when Santa Claus and his many variants are believed to travel the world, leaving behind presents for the children on the well-behaved list. Although in many countries people open presents on Christmas morning, some open them on Christmas Eve – this includes Canada’s Quebec Provence, as well as Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Portugal.

Christmas Eve is a time when families begin to gather to celebrate Christmas Day, often traveling to be with each other, and enjoying a Christmas Eve supper together. Historically, it was also the day when Christmas trees and decorations were set up; however, the festive garlands are now often in place weeks beforehand.

 Boxing Day

Despite the name, it has nothing to do with prizefighting. In England, it was customary for churches to open their alms boxes to the poor on the first workday after Christmas in an attempt to give some cheer to those who could not afford a very merry Christmas. Out of this custom grew Boxing Day, on which day service people and other workers would collect money or treats from their employers. It was popularized during Queen Victoria’s reign in England, in the mid-nineteenth century, and remains a day off from work in many countries.

Epiphany

The Wise Men’s visit to Jesus is commemorated on Epiphany, also know in some places as the Twelfth Night or Three Kings’ Eve. Originally, Epiphany marked the manifestation of God to the world in the form of Jesus, so it included both the birth and the baptism of Jesus. Later, when the Romans bean introducing Christianity to the West, they moved the birth of Jesus to December 25, and represented Epiphany as the day the Wise Men presented their gifts.

Tradition marks this event on January 6, which remains the date of the Eastern Orthodox Christmas in many countries. You’ll note that there are twelve days between December 25 and January 6, which is where our celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas comes from.

(Jeffrey, Yvonne, The Everything Family Christmas Book)

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25 Days of Christmas: Day 2 ~ Early Christianity

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Early Christianity

Christmas has to wait more than 300 years after the birth of Jesus before it began to be popularized in a meaningful way. Instead, the first Christians were focused on spreading the word about Christianity while avoiding official persecution, which began as early as A.D. 64 under the Roman emperor Nero. For the next two centuries and more, Christians endured prison and death at the hands of the Roman Empire, while Egyptian, Greek, and Persian gods continued to be worshiped freely.

Things begin to change when Emperor Constantine, who came to power over the Roman Empire in 306, gradually converted to Christianity. As a result, Christianity became the state religion, and public funds were used to build churches. Constantine commissioned the building of the Church of the Nativity on a spot in Bethlehem that was believed to be the exact birthplace of Christ. By the end of the fourth century, the old forms of worship had been banned and Christianity began spreading.

(Jeffrey, Yvonne, “Everything Family Christmas Book”)

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Festive Fact

In the first centuries A.D., the Roman Empire extended around the Mediterranean Sea, encompassing areas we now know as norther Africa (including Egypt), the Middle East (including present-day Israel, Jordan, and Syria), Europe (including France, England, Italy, and Greece), and the region where Europe borders Asia (Turkey). 

Will Ken Ham “Crumble to Scientific Facts” in the Debate? – Answers in Genesis

This is an excellent response to a comment made on Ken Ham’s Facebook page.  Feedback: Will Ken Ham “Crumble to Scientific Facts” in the Debate? – Answers in Genesis.