The first gifts given to honor the birth of the Christ child came from a group of men called wise men or magi. The Bible does not tell us how many wise men there were. Most people assume there were three because of the three gifts mentioned, but there could have been more. These gifts were expensive and reflected the wise men’s perception of Jesus’ station in life. But those gifts were not the first Christmas gifts. The first Christmas gift came from God Himself. This is the origin of Christmas gift giving: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. That whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
Gifts had been exchanged during the midwinter season for many years before Christ was born. The Romans are credited with starting the custom of giving gifts during their midwinter festivals. The first festival, Saturnalia, occurred in mid to late December. Gifts of wax candles, wax fruit, and clay dolls were exchanged between social peers. Gifts and good wishes were given to friends and family during the New Year festival Kalends.
As the Roman empire grew gift giving spread throughout Europe. As time went on the celebration of Saturnalia died out but gift giving during the New Year’s celebration continued. In many places, like England, gift giving was reserved for those within the social hierarchy. Peasants gave gifts of farm produce to their lord who then provided a Christmas feast. Nobles gave gifts to the king and queen who also gave gifts to their court. This practice occurred not on Christmas day but on New Year’s day. It was still considered to be a part of the Christmas because the Christmas season, during the medieval period lasted for twelve days. There is no record of gift giving between friends or family members during this time.
The first recorded occurrence of Christmas gift giving between family and friends comes from 16th century Germany. Children received “Christ-bundles” consisting of coins, sugarplums, nuts, apples, dolls, clothing, school books, religious books, or writing materials. Parents told their children that the Christkind, or Christ child, brought their gifts. Through the 17th and 18th centuries the tradition spread throughout Europe and England. Popular gifts included food items, warm clothing, accessories, jewelry, pens, watches, and books for children.
Eventually, by early 19th century, New Year’s gift giving was absorbed by Christmas gift giving. Partly this was due to the number of days within the Christmas season where gifts were exchanged. Some European countries honored St. Nicholas, patron saint of children, on his day by giving gifts to children, a practice that some say was started by nuns in central France who left packages of nuts, oranges, and other “good things to eat” on the doorsteps of poor families with children on St. Nicholas’s eve. Others exchanged gifts on St. Martin’s (Martinmas) eve in honor of the saint’s practice of riding through the countryside giving treats to children. And still others exchanged gifts on St. Stephen’s Day. On this day during the Middle Ages parish priests opened up church alms boxes and distributed the coins found inside to the needy. This practice grew to include boxed gifts of food, money, and clothing given by the affluent in society to those in the working class who served them in some fashion during the year. St. Stephen’s Day soon lost its identity to these gift boxes and became Boxing Day.
The custom of exchanging gifts between friends and family members became widespread during the 19th century. This was aided by the spread of the German Christmas tree as the repository for Christmas gifts and the popularity of Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, as the giver of Christmas gifts.
Today people all over the world spend billions of dollars every year for Christmas gifts. For some Christmas gift giving is a bother trying to out-give one another, remembering everyone from whom a gift may be received, or facing the high cost of the Christmas season. For others Christmas gift giving is a joy a chance to express appreciation and love to others, a chance to give of oneself to those who cannot give back, and a time to honor the One whose birthday is being celebrated. Which group do you belong? I hope it is the latter.