The tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas has origins both ancient and modern. Though the present-day festival of Christmas is an annual tradition commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, the custom of exchanging gifts is a product of Victorian inventiveness, ancient Roman merrymaking and medieval interpretations of early Christian narratives.
Here’s the history of giving gifts at Christmas.
Ancient gift-giving at Christmas
Gift-giving long precedes Christmas, but it came to be associated with the Christian festival early in Christian history.
Gift-giving may have taken place around the winter solstice in ancient Rome. During this time in December, the Saturnalia holiday was celebrated. Held from 17 December to 23 December, Saturnalia honoured the god Saturn. Festivities incorporated a sacrifice at his temple, as well as a public banquet, continual merrymaking and private gift-giving.
The gifts exchanged were typically intended to amuse or confuse, or were small figurines known as sigillaria. Made of pottery or wax, these often had the appearance of gods or demigods, including Hercules or Minerva, the Roman goddess of defensive war and wisdom. The poet Martial also described inexpensive gifts such as dice cups and combs.
At the new year, Romans gave laurel twigs and later gilded coins and nuts in honour of the goddess of health and wellbeing, Strenia. In pre-Roman Britain, there was a similar tradition of gift exchange following the new year in which druids distributed sprigs of luck-bearing mistletoe.
Gifts of the Magi
In the early 4th century AD, the Roman custom of gift-giving became linked to the Biblical Magi who delivered presents to the infant Jesus Christ. The Magi had presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh on 6 January, the day now celebrated as the Epiphany holiday, also referred to as Three Kings Day.
Writers in the 4th century, such as Egeria and Ammianus Marcellinus, describe the event as the inspiration for an early Christian feast.
A legendary gift-giver
Another Christian narrative describes the gift-giving habits of the 4th-century Christian bishop Saint Nicholas. The inspiration for Father Christmas and Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas of Myra was linked to miracles and is also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. However, his habit of secretly giving gifts is chiefly responsible for his renown.
Possibly born in Patara in the southwest of present-day Turkey, Nicholas later became known for distributing wealth to the poor and for a series of miracles and benevolent acts. Among the acts attributed to Nicholas is his rescue of three girls from being forced into sex work. By covertly delivering gold coins through their windows each night, their father could pay a dowry for each of them. When Nicholas was discovered by a father, he asked that he keep his gifts secret.
The story, the authenticity of which is disputed, is first attested in Michael the Archimandrite’s Life of Saint Nicholas, which dates to the 9th century.
As a result, giving presents became integrated into Christmas celebrations. Sometimes this took place on Christmas Day, 25 December, or earlier in the Christian season of Advent on Saint Nicholas Day.
Saint Nicholas inspired the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, whose festival arose during the middle ages. The feast encouraged the provision of aid to the poor, particularly by putting money in their shoes. By the 19th century, his image had been secularised and he was imagined to deliver presents. Sinterklaas had by this time inspired Santa Claus in the former Dutch colonies of North America.
Competitive gift-giving was a feature of Henry VIII’s rule, who was among the monarchs who utilised the gift-giving tradition to exact further tribute from their subjects. He is recorded in 1534 as having received a richly adorned table, compass and clock, among other presents.
Oranges and cloves were common presents among ordinary people. This possibly represented the gifts given by the Magi to Jesus. They may also be inspired by renderings of Saint Nicholas with three gold balls, which represented the gold he hurled through children’s windows.
Gifts to children
During the 16th century, a Christmas custom of giving gifts to children became widespread in Europe. It was also often an occasion for peasants and later working classes to insist on benefaction from local elites, in the form of food and drink.
The focus on gifting towards children may have been promoted later by initiatives to reduce rowdiness on urban streets around Christmas time, and by parents interested in keeping children away from those streets’ corrupting influences. In 19th-century New York, a city with a rapidly increasing population, concerns of radicalism among the city’s poor informed a revival of Dutch Christmas traditions and domestic festivities.
As a result, Christmas became a more private and domestic holiday, rather than one primarily of public carousing.
Unwrapping the gift
Where Christmas gift-giving had often taken place early in December, or even after New Year’s Eve, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day gradually became the main occasions for exchanging presents. Partly the result of Protestant resistance to so many feast days in the 16th century, it can also be attributed to the popularity of Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem The Night Before Christmas and Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol.
In the poem, which is alternately attributed to Henry Livingston Jr., a family on Christmas Eve is visited by Saint Nicholas. The merry interloper, inspired by the Dutch Sinterklaas, lands his sleigh on the roof, emerges from the fireplace and fills the hanging stockings with toys from his sack.
Dickens’ later A Christmas Carol coincided with a revival of the Christmas holiday in mid-Victorian culture. Its themes of festive generosity and family gatherings attend a story in which the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge transforms into a kinder man, waking on Christmas day with an impulse to make a donation and present gifts.
Retailers with commercial interests found it to their advantage to endorse Christmas gift-giving, particularly in the 20th century. The rapid expansion of consumer capitalism, in which mass-marketing played a significant role in creating new buyers for products, helped to increase the magnitude of Christmas giving.
Yet contemporary Christmas traditions are as rooted in ancient gift-giving as in modernity. Christmas gift-giving recalls both the Victorian penchant for inventing traditions as well as pre-Roman customs and early Christian narratives.