The giving of a gift at Christmas is an ancient tradition, going back to even before the famous biblical birth! This article examines the history of Christmas gift giving and receiving, tracing its ancient origins and the reasons for the Yule time celebrations.
When Did People Start Giving Christmas Gifts and Why?
The giving or sending of a gift at Christmas time has its origins going back even before the famous biblical birth! The Victorian era appeared to have epitomised the true spirit of Christmas and instigated many of the current seasonal traditions. In modern times Christmas is a huge commercial enterprise, with the business promotion run up starting virtually as soon as Summer Holidays are finished.
Indeed for many the Christmas period can be a very stressful and expensive time, particularly through the over expectation of gifts from some. This essay looks at the history of Christmas gift giving, tracing its origins and the ultimate reasons for the Yule time celebrations.
Another lead up to Christmas, and yet another cycle of manic buying. It seems that for most people, you barely get the summer holiday over with and an avalanche of Christmas television advertising starts, together with respective supermarket campaigns. Yes, it does appear that the message of Christmas can be lost in over commercialism, and much of the selling is connected with the tradition of giving and receiving Christmas gifts.
In the United Kingdom, this prolific gift sending seems to have increased to the current level over the past decade. The author certainly remembers that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most people had much fewer gifts. Children tended to look forward to receiving Christmas gifts of just one or two items – something fairly simple like a football or a doll. It is no doubt that during the Second World War and in the decade immediately after, austerity ruled there was not too much money about. Christmas gifts were still sent though, albeit small loving gifts or perhaps homemade. By the 1960s the proliferation of supermarkets and factory production laid the foundation for the current huge Christmas commercialisation.
The Victorian era still epitomises the spirit of Christmas, and Charles Dickens immortal story ‘A Christmas Carol’ has ensured its longevity and image as the idyllic Christmas period. Indeed they were giving out gifts in Victorian times, but more often than not a single simple gift was the order of the day, rather than the current mass of extravagant gifts often given out nowadays. This gift was often a very simple item, perhaps home made such as a cake, clothes, or a doll. For those more affluent and with children, the manufacture of toys (often wooden) was introduced. Pinning down an exact date is difficult, but it is generally acknowledged that the Victorian tradition of Christmas gift giving started around the 1840s; also the first known commercially produced Christmas Card was designed by John Callcott Horsley of London in 1843. Together with cards and decorations, the Victorian era saw the introduction of many of the Christmas traditions currently enjoyed.
To contradict popular belief, Christmas celebrations did exist before the Victorian era, they did not completely invent the tradition! In fact back to the Middle ages the celebration was intensive covering a two week period of celebration from Christmas Eve to the twelfth night of January 6th, hence the Twelve Days of Christmas carol written in 1780. The middle age twelve days was a time of much feasting, parties, and of course the giving and receiving of seasonal gifts. The Christmas gifts would include generous lords giving items such as clothing and firewood to their serfs. The origin of the English word ‘Christmas’ is from the Old English middle age ‘Cristes Maesse’ which literally means ‘Mass of Christ’.
Going back in time to late antiquity (between 2nd and 8th Century) Christmas time was a rather quiet and solemn occasion - a time for reflection or prayer. Until the 4th Century no fixed date had been set for Christmas, with the celebration of the birth of Christ being apparent in April, May, November, December, and January. Pope Julius I settled this by officially fixing the date of 25th December, but nobody knows precisely why he selected the now famous date! The fact that the 25th December was already a designated pagan holiday to honour pagan sun-gods more than likely had a major influence on his decision.
The biblical story of the nativity gives the classic narrative of the three wise men from the East presenting gifts to the baby Jesus of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. This is considered by some to have been the first Christmas gifts ever given. Incidentally there is considerable religious debate about when the actual birth date of Jesus was, according to the scriptures it certainly was not 25th December. Historical research indicates that a date in autumn in the year 4 BC is the most likely.
The history of Christmas in fact extends before Christ. The winter solstice (shortest daytime day) has been celebrated in some form or other for antiquity, and no doubt involved a degree of gift giving. North Europeans called this celebration ‘Jul’, still reflected today in the word Yule meaning Christmas.
Returning to the modern celebration of Christmas, it has certainly in the view of many turned into an over commercialised celebration, and can stretch many family’s finances beyond breaking point. The exchange of gifts can take care of much of the seasonal time’s financial outlay – and to be honest many people end up with gifts they already have or don’t want, and adversely affecting finances for many months.
Choosing the right Christmas gift, with a unique idea that would suit the majority of people, at a great price can be real problem. Where can people get such a gift? Datalite UK Ltd produces such a product: a framed The Day You Born certificate is a superb Christmas gift, giving news and events of the birth date of the recipient. These are available from www.dayborn.com with next day (UK) despatch option. End of plug!
In summary the giving of Christmas gifts in one form or another has gone on for many thousands of years. The idyllic Christmas period is seen as the Victorian Era, though realistically for the very poor the period would have represented a period of cold and continuing austerity. It is true that the lead up to Christmas has become over commercialised in the view of many. However, it still remains a time for much celebration and enjoyment. You are wished a very Merry Christmas!