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Have you ever wondered “Why do we give gifts on Christmas?”. Let’s dive into the history and purpose of gift giving to better understand this Christmas tradition.
Gifts are arguably -but not really arguably because I’m omnipotent and always correct- the most exciting part of Christmas.
The thrill of receiving new items, whether materialistic or sentimental, has remained a cornerstone of the holiday season and one of the better things to look forward to in childhood.
But, like literally everything- obviously- we can trace the roots of the practice back to a time that I can literally smell the disease and B.O. off of.
So, here we go, onto yet another escapade into the origins of a topic that I have never spared a thought for in my entire life, but, hey, there’s no harm in learning new things.
Christmas Gifts in the Bible
How did gift-giving begin? Christians believe that Christmas gifts began with the three wise men.
So, picture it: three dudes following a star to see a baby in some hay on a night that’s never actually been confirmed to be in December, carrying with them a selection of gifts.
The three Magi, or wise men, traveled to Bethlehem on the hopes of seeing this baby in some hay with gold, frankincense (an oil), and myrrh (embalming fluid… I’m not questioning it, I’m not questioning it, I’m not, Mom, okay? You won’t see any questioning from me! I take everything at face-value. No questions asked. Embalming fluid. A lovely present for a newborn.).
Origins of Gift-Giving
But like with everything, there are an abundance of sources of this practice.
Historians believe that exchanging gifts began with the ancient Romans. The ancient Romans often gave gifts during wintertime festivals.
Romans gave gifts to friends and family during Kalends, their New Year’s festival. Their oldest gifts were two small twigs from the groves of the goddess Strenia.
Later, they gave each other coins, fruit, and cake. Romans called the gifts “strenae” after Strenia.
The ancient Romans also offered “vata”, or wishes of prosperity to their emperor.
They also exchanged gifts during Saturnalia, a winter festival a few days before Kalends. Saturnalia gifts included wax candles, wax fruit, and clay dolls. The gifts expressed the goodwill of the sender.
Roman gift-giving customs spread throughout Europe into the middle ages.
A long time later, Germans began to practice gift-giving. In the 1500s German children received Christ-bundles.
They contained small gifts like books, coins, nuts, sugarplums, and other objects. Parents told their kids that Haus Christ gave them their gifts.
German’s had a Christmas tree and a Christmas pyramid. They decorated them with various sorts of treats.
Gift-Giving in the Middle Ages
In medieval England, people gave gifts immediately to their superiors. If someone did this, the receiver would invite the sender over for a Christmas feast. Free food; the noblest of endeavors.
Nobles gave gifts to the king or queen and the monarch gave gifts to the members of their courts. During these times, gift-giving was more professional than personal.
in the 15th-16th century, New Year’s gifts in England flourished.
In the 1400s, police officers would tell people to bring them gifts to get out of legal trouble, which… is kind of a mood but I probably shouldn’t admit it because EXTORTION IS BAD and CORRUPTION IS BAD. Don’t break the law, kids, and especially don’t try to bribe your way out of it.
Unsurprisingly, officers were soon banned from accepting gifts as bribes soon after.
Also, Queen Elizabeth gained many New Year’s gifts. She received silk, satin garments, cakes, foods, jewelry, and personal items made from many sacred metals.
Her gentlewomen also offered her other gifts like cushions or pillows. Then, the tradition of giving gifts to the monarch died out in the 18th century.
In the 17th to 18th centuries, people in England began to give gifts to their loved ones. Some of the gifts included gloves, oranges, rosemary, jewelry, and other metals.
Children received books or literature on religious teachings. Finally, New Year’s gifts started to stop in the 19th century.
Gift-Giving During Different Holidays
Although gifts were on the decline, the rise of Christmas kept the ancient gift-giving tradition alive. Later, Europeans began to give gifts on St. Nicholas day.
St. Nicholas gifts somewhat differed from New Year’s gifts. Adults gave children gifts because of the saint’s patron of children. Some of these traditions are dated back to the 12th century.
Nuns from France left gifts at the doorstep of poor children’s houses the day before St. Nicholas’ day. Most of the gifts included food or clothing.
Many common-folk adopted the customs, spreading it to France and other parts of Northern Europe. St. Martin was known to deliver gifts to children the day before Martinmas, which is the day of St. Martin.
People also exchanged gifts on “Boxing Day”. Boxing Day is on December 26 and is the second day of Christmastide, which is a fun word.
On December 26, priests opened the doors of the church and gave change to the needy. The custom led to the term, “box”, which meant to give away small portions of money or gratitude.
In the early 1600s, the boxing day tradition inspired workers to put all of their tips in a box that they would open on Boxing Day. About a century later, they began to solicit their tips.
They collected the last of the “boxes” on December 26th and they broke them open, spending the money on Christmas treats. In the 1800s “boxing” got so popular that the holiday was renamed from St. Stephen’s day to Boxing Day.
Just as New Year’s gifts, Boxing Day gifts were more professional than personal.
The Evolution of Christmas Gifts
In the 1800s, exchanging gifts with friends and family became more popular. Since Christmas trees and Santa were becoming more popular at this time, they both expanded the gift-giving custom.
The trees gave the Christmas gifts a nice play to lay. Later, Santa became widely known to bring gifts to good children.
In the 19th century, Christmas gifts became more personal than professional. Also, people began to use Christmas gifts as an act of charity.
After commercialism for Christmas gifts boomed, children all around the world received presents on December 25th. So, yes, technically Christmas gifts are a huge marketing strategy from big companies that literally could not care any less about the holiday itself, but I refuse to let it ruin this for me.
Christmas Gift Statistics
Over the years, people have been spending more and more money on Christmas gifts, which is unsurprising in the increasingly consumer-driven world we live in.
In 2018, the average amount an American would spend on Christmas gifts for one person was almost $900. In 2019, people spent about $920 per person on Christmas gifts. (What? Is this,,, true? ONE PERSON. I have, like, $5. Max. Everyone is getting a letter and a hug. My condolences, my guys, but NINE HUNDRED DOLLARS. Yeesh.)
With people spending this much on each person for Christmas gifts the total price reaches over 1 trillion dollars.
In 2001, the average amount of money spent on Christmas gifts per person in America exceeded $1,000, which is the highest ever. A few years later, the average shrunk several hundred dollars due to a financial crash.
Now, the Christmas gift market has risen back up to about $1,000. Today, many people use online shopping instead of shopping in stores, which I endorse because shopping centers are my own personal torture chamber during the holidays.
People are brutal. They go back to their primal, animalistic instincts, I swear. I believe the worst of everyone is brought out at Costco on the day before Christmas Eve, second only to Black Friday. Insane. Ludicrous. I’m afraid of Karens who have that manic glint in their Chardonnay-glazed eyes, striding at a brisk pace towards the last Buzz Lightyear doll on the shelf.
Beware the Karens. Beware the Chardonnay.
Get out while you still can.