Tradition of Gift Giving
There is no disputing that Christmas giving has become a very big business: a strong holiday selling season often means the difference between a good and a bad year for a retailer. In the shopping frenzy that lasts from the opening of the Christmas buying season to the closing hours of Christmas Eve, it’s easy to forget what all the fuss is for.
It was not always like that. There was, not so long ago, a time when Christmas involved no gift giving at all, and in some countries that is still the standard. The union of Christmas and gift giving was a gradual one; actually, the full story of the bright packages beneath the tree begins in the days before the birth of Christ.
In ancient Rome, gifts were exchanged during the New Year’s celebrations. At first these gifts were simple, such as a few twigs from a sacred grove and food. Many gifts were in the form of vegetables in honor of the fertility goddess Strenia. During the Northern European Yule, fertility was celebrated with gifts made of wheat products, such as bread and alcohol.
While most of this giving was done on a voluntary basis, history has had its share of leaders who did their best to ensure they would have plenty of gifts to open. One year Emperor Caligula of Rome declared to all that he would be receiving presents on New Year’s Day; gifts he deemed inadequate of his stature were ridiculed. Then there was Henry III, who closed down the merchants of England one December because he was not impressed with the amount of their monetary gifts.
Like many old customs, gift exchange was difficult to get rid of even as Christianity spread and gained official status. Early church leaders tried to outlaw the custom, but the people cherished it too much to let it go. So the church leaders sought a Christian justification for the practice. The justification was found 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.
Even though the roots of the Christmas present extend to ancient times, the gift giving tradition we are familiar with 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 part of the celebration. Friendliness and charity filled many hearts during their Christmas season, so giving gifts was natural. The ultimate reason for giving a gift was as an expression of kindness, a sentiment that went nicely with the historical tradition of the holiday.
The 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 than that were in order during the holiday season. They had cobweb parties, which was a lot of messy fun. Each family member was assigned a color, then shown to a room crisscrossed with yarn of various colors. Each person was to follow an assigned color through the web of yarn until he or she reached the present tied to the end.
The Christmas pie was another favorite diversion, although it was not exactly edible. Small gifts were hidden in a large bowl of grain. After everyone had eaten Christmas dinner, they would gather around the pie and they took turns taking a spoonful. Whatever treat was in their spoonful was theirs to keep.
The American Christmas was greatly influenced by the Victorians, gift giving, tradition and all. America expanded on the concept with the addition of Santa Claus: the association with gifts was a natural one. Soon Santa or one of his earlier models became responsible for the presents left in an ever-increasing number of stockings.
By the late nineteenth century the simple and non-materialistic gift giving tradition had began to wither away. Christmas had come face to face with commercialism, and the new message was to buy. It was not long before shopping and the idea of gifts had made its way into the meaning of Christmas. This transition was highly encouraged by merchants who stood to benefit from a year-end buying binge. It was and still is a question of whether or not this development did more harm than good to the holiday. Some people wonder whether the emphasis on buying, shopping and getting brings more happiness or disappointment, especially to those who can afford very little. But, many others argue that Christmas, through its many culture changes, would greatly be affected by the modern consumer culture in which we live. In the end, it is likely that the best way to approach Christmas gift giving is with both viewpoints in mind. Most parents of young children are unwilling to do away entirely with what might be called the gimme Christmas, but that is no reason some of the spirit of past holiday can not be incorporated in the modern Christmas as well.