Like many other Christmas traditions gift giving is not original with Christmas. Its roots trace back to non-Christian religious observances from pagan holidays celebrated in Rome and in the Yule of Northern Europe. Like many cherished customs, modern society has added their own twist that adds or detracts to the celebration, depending on your viewpoint.
Gift giving began as early as the festival of Saturn, called Saturnalias celebrated by the ancient Romans near the 25th of December. In a mocking way, slaves exchanged places with their masters and simple gifts of wax candles and pottery figures called “sigilla” were exchanged towards the end of the celebrations.
In the North during the Yule season, giving gifts were a part of Winter Solstice and the return of the sun. Gift baskets made from wheat stalks reflected its life giving qualities and fertility. The harvest was as much a part of this celebration as anything.
These traditions were adapted into Christianity and became a part of the Christmas celebration. At one point, around the year 1000, the Catholic Church banned gift giving because they thought the practice had become too pagan.
The Puritans coming to America did not celebrate Christmas and gift giving because they too found it over abundant and too wild.
The Victorians actually reinstated the traditions of gift giving as part of their Christmas festivities. Their gifts were much simpler and traditional than those given today. Gifts were scattered through the house and found in pies, not in stacks under the Christmas tree.
Santa Claus and his gift giving were reinforced through commercialism and traditional Christmas poems. Adapting European figures such as St. Nicholas, Santa Claus came into his own with the publishing of Clement C. Moore’s, “Twas The Night Before Christmas. His gift giving characteristics were reinforced with the bright and jolly man portrayed in the commercials of a favorite carbonated beverage.
Adopting all of these past traditions, many Christians trace back the idea of gifts, to those given to the Christ child by the Magi. Many Christians see his birth as the ultimate gift of love from God.
Reflecting back on earlier times, the holidays can be a time to give, not for the sake of getting or spending, but a time to show appreciation with thoughtful gifts of love. The holiday becomes more meaningful by showing concern to those less fortunate than ourselves. Taking commercialism out of Christmas and reflecting on a simpler time, will go a long way to improving the Christmas gift giving tradition.