Why do we Exchange Gifts on Christmas?
Giving gifts to the ones we love is so synonymous with Christmas these days that it has become the main event of the holiday. But it wasn’t always the most important thing. The history of gift giving during the winter holidays precedes Christmas, but it has gone in and out of fashion and has changed forms many times.
One of the earliest precursors to Christmas is Saturnalia, the Roman celebration of the winter solstice. Quite a few of the traditions of Saturnalia have survived through the years and are still a part of our Christmas celebration today, including gift giving. Ancient Romans gave gifts to their friends and family on Saturnalia and during their new years celebration each year. Usually these gifts were handmade items or food.
When Ancient Rome adopted Christianity, Christmas replaced Saturnalia and spread throughout Europe with the religion. Gift giving customs varied from place to place. In some countries such as Germany and Norway, children were given presents on Christmas which they believed were brought to them by the Christ Child. Some adults in these countries also exchanged gifts. In Sweden there was a tradition of leaving gifts by neighbors front doors, knocking, and then running away. The neighbors would then try to guess who left the gift.
Though gift giving wasn’t unheard of, it also wasn’t a common practice in centuries past for most Christians. More important than giving presents to your loved ones was the custom of charitable giving. Many Europeans gave to servants, employees, and charities before they gave to their friends and families. This tradition made its way from England to America along with the holiday. Gift giving was unpopular for several reasons in the new world. First because receiving gifts during the holidays was seen as something only servants did. People only gave to those below them on the social ladder, so for a well off person to to give to another well off person would have been extremely unfashionable. Also, Puritanism was popular in early America and the Puritans disliked the materialism of gift giving and of Christmas in general.
When immigrants from other parts of Europe, such as Germany and Ireland, began to bring their holiday traditions to the new world, the custom of gift giving slowly became less taboo. Imports such as Christmas trees and Santa Claus helped make Christmas presents a traditional part of the holiday. New companies in America saw this as an opportunity to sell more products and began advertising the idea of gift giving on Christmas as the norm. Like many universal holiday traditions, the commercialism of Christmas presents in America caused the custom to spread around the world, making it as well-known as it is today.
Today, one of the most beloved parts of Christmas is the gift exchange that takes place each year. Not just because of the joy of receiving gifts, but also because of the joy of giving them. Christmas is the only time of year for many people when you get to show each person in your life how much they mean to you. Spreading gifts is just another way of spreading the love and Christmas joy.