Christmas is, for many people, their favourite time of the year. Taking away the fact it is a time of rampant Christmas gift giving and stress, it is also the time of year when families most often come together and see each other. For others, it is the joyous occasion of celebrating Christ’s birth, and as Christmas has been overtaken by the commercial side of the season, this religious basis for the celebration is often overlooked. However, many people wonder about the origins of Christmas, and especially how the tradition of Christmas gift giving came about in particular!
The celebration of Christmas has its roots in ancient winter festivals. At this time, Christianity was trying to get people to convert and realised that people would be more likely to if they did not have to lose their beloved winter festivals.
The winter solstice was also celebrated, and the Sol Invictus festival lays claim to cementing the 25th of December as Christmas Day, as there is no definitive birth-date of Jesus in the Bible. Pagan Scandinavia used to celebrate a festival called Yule, where there would be carousing until the Yule log burned out, which usually took twelve days. Pagan Germania’s equivalent was the mid-winter night, which also used to last around twelve days.
In the Middle Ages, Christmas consisted of bouts of drinking, feasting and caroling. Puritans at the time disliked this carousing, that was ostensibly in Christ’s name, and self-styled Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell cancelled Christmas in 1645 due to these reasons. In England, Christmas gifts were traditionally exchanged on New Year’s Day in this period.
Pretty soon Christmas was a widespread feast, although after the US revolution it was considered a very British thing to do and as such fell out of favour in America. This soon changed however into the 1800s with Washington Irving’s short stories reviving American interest in Christmas. Back in England, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol worked to popularize and reframe Christmas as a time of family togetherness. By the late 19th century, Christmas had assumed the traditional form it has today, and in 1870 President Ulysses Grant officially declared Christmas a federal holiday in America. In Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand however, the 26th of December, as Boxing Day, also became a holiday. This day became a rest day for servants and other house staff that may have had to work on Christmas Day.
The most iconic association with Christmas is of course Santa Claus, also variously known as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas and Pere Noel. His image was created by cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1863, and was standardised by advertising in the 1920s. The myth of Santa Claus possibly comes from stories of Saint Nicholas, though in Britain the image was popularly thought from the 15th century to symbolise drunkenness and merriment. Santa is now thought of as the man who brings Gifts at Christmas, though in South America the legend goes that he makes toys for the baby Jesus to deliver.
The notion of Christmas gift giving is one of the main questions here and it has a very straightforward answer. The giving of Christmas gifts has its roots in the magi, or wise men, bringing gifts to Jesus. In fact, some Eastern Orthodox Churches and European countries still celebrate the traditional date of the Magi’s arrival, January 6th, with something like a Christmas gift exchange. In history, the Romans traded gifts as part of their Saturnalia festival, and in the 13th century French nuns gave presents to the poor on St Nicholas’ Eve. However, Christmas gift giving as we know it today did not really come about until the late 18th century. In short, the giving of Christmas gifts was meant to remind people of the magi’s gifts to the baby Jesus, and by extension God’s gift of Christ to humankind. As we all know, nowadays the more social aspect of Christmas gift giving has taken over, as a means of showing affection to family and friends for instance, but the roots of the gift giving should always be remembered as a Christian religious tradition.
The commercial aspect of Christmas is now a gigantic economic operation, as Christmas gift giving is a major tradition. Many shops advertise longer hours to ensure those searching for last minute Christmas gifts are not disappointed. With the advent of the internet, the shopping aspect of Christmas gift giving has been further simplified, with the ease of selection and stress-free browsing major attractions. The greater choice of Christmas gifts online also makes this method of shopping more attractive. Another advantage is that personalised gifts are more widely available on the net than on the high street, and more creative presents such as spa weekends and flying experience are more easily booked online.
In short then, it is fair to say that Christmas gift giving has come a long way from its roots in the Epiphany to what it is today.
By PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay