St George & Sutherland Shire Leader

Holiday history: How did gift-giving at Christmas get started?

Let's take a look back at the various festivals and cultures that inspired Christmas. Picture Shutterstock
Let's take a look back at the various festivals and cultures that inspired Christmas. Picture Shutterstock

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Every year on December 25, billions of people worldwide celebrate Christmas-hanging up their stockings, drinking eggnog, seeing family, and exchanging presents. It's hard to walk down a street in Australia during December and not see stores decorated with Christmas decorations.

Christmas is synonymous with gift-giving; you'll see seasonal sales nationwide, and stores will order holiday-themed products from a giftware wholesaler. People even cover their homes with Christmas-themed lights, as well as decorate their yards with ornaments and statues.

Whilst originally a religious holiday, Christmas has quickly become a secular and cultural festival as well. It has a rich history dating back thousands of years, with traditions and customs such as carolling, Nativity plays, Christmas cards, church services, and special meals. So, where exactly did Christmas come from?

Did any festivals influence Christmas?

Before we look at the history of Christmas and what the annual festival has become today, it's important to take a look back at the various festivals and cultures that inspired it. Christmas wasn't always the go-to festival to celebrate in the middle of winter. Years before the arrival (and death) of Jesus, people came together to celebrate the end of winter, putting the worst of the cold behind them, and looking toward summer.

For Europe, historically, the perfect time for a celebration would have been the end of December. It was the only time of year when communities had a fresh supply and surplus of meat. Specifically in northern Europe, due to the harsh climate, most cattle and other stock were slaughtered because they could not be fed during winter. This meant that there was plenty of meat for celebrations and a feast. Any alcohol such as wine and beer that was made during the year would also have finally fermented and been ready for drinking around December.

For example, Yule (also called Jul, joulu, or jl) was a pre-Christian festival celebrated by the Germanic peoples and one of the oldest winter solstice festivals. The festival and its traditions have since been absorbed into Christmas, being one of its heaviest influences. Yule had its origins rooted in ancient Norse traditions, dating back thousands of years ago. In Scandinavia, the Norse people celebrated Yule from December 21, through January.

It's speculated that Saturnalia also had a heavy hand in what we call Christmas today. It is an ancient Roman festival and holiday that was held on the December 17, followed by 3 to 7 days of festivities. This included gift-giving, a carnival-like atmosphere, public banquets, and gambling. Interestingly enough, this event was inspired by an even older festival, the Greek holiday of Kronia.

Festivals celebrating the winter solstice have been observed in ancient cultures all around the world. Christmas also wouldn't be the only modern festival and event with deep roots in ancient celebrations. Halloween is influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, and in particular-the Gaelic festival Samhain, which has pagan roots.

Where did Christmas trees come from?

Before we jump into the tradition and roots of gift-giving, let's talk about the physical roots and where they came from-Christmas trees. Trees being used in festivals aren't exclusive to Christmas. Since ancient times, trees have been used as part of rituals and decorations, which also means there isn't a singular origin for the modern Christmas tree.

For example, many believe and attribute the origin of the custom to early Germany. There is a recount that claims an English missionary, Saint Boniface, encountered pagans preparing a sacrifice at an oak tree that was dedicated to the god Thor (Donar) in the early 700s.

The popularisation and use of trees in Christian rites did happen in Germany, however, during the Middle Ages. On December 24, the traditional liturgical feast day for Adam and Eve, 'paradise trees' became an occurrence in the 16th century. These trees would be decorated with apples and ornaments, and displayed in homes.

By the 19th century, these trees were firmly established as a long-standing tradition in Germany, and as people from there began to migrate, they brought them over to other countries. One of the most notable examples of this is in the 1790s. The German-born wife of King George III, Charlotte, would decorate trees for the holiday, carrying on the tradition from her home country. Soon after, the German-born prince, Albert, popularised the tradition among the British.

Where does the tradition of gift-giving come from?

The origin of gift-giving can be traced back to the pagan rituals and other ancient winter solstice festivals held in winter. Gift-giving was also a huge aspect of the ancient Roman festival Saturnalia. As Christianity spread to new communities and across the world, it naturally absorbed these traditions from other cultures and religions, like the festivals and gift-giving.

This absorption of beliefs and traditions is a common practice seen throughout history when a new religion replaces an older one. The new religion, in this case Christianity, selectively absorbed beliefs and traditions from Paganism and replaced motifs where they could with Christian ones.

When recontextualising the importance of gift-giving at Christmas in religion, Christianity used the birth of Jesus. In religious texts, the justification for gift-giving was told through the Three Wise Men. For those unfamiliar with the story, when Jesus was born, the Three Wise Men visited Jesus, and each one gave him a gift.

However, Christmas back then and gift-giving was very different to the heavily marketed and commercialised Christmas we have today. In early modern Europe, Christmas and gift-giving had their roots in begging. According to the author Stephen Nissenbaum, writer behind 'The Battle for Christmas', people from a lower class would go home-to-home asking for handouts from the upper social classes.

Stephen Nissenbaum's book goes in-depth, detailing the early origins of Christmas, the social history behind it, and traditions like gift-giving. For example, it covers the Puritans of colonial Massachusetts, who outlawed the holiday because of the drunkenness and disorder it'd cause. This law was called the Penalty for Keeping Christmas, and anyone found celebrating Christmas or similar festivals in any manner would have to pay for their offences.

When Christmas first came to the United States and was officially declared as a public holiday in 1870, this all changed. The annual festival shifted its focus from the roots we see explored in Stephen Nissenbaum's 'The Battle for Christmas', to gift-giving to younger children and loved ones.

How did Santa get into the mall?

Wondering where Santa came from? There was a time before parents would line up with their children at the mall to take pictures with him. The earliest origins of Santa Claus can be traced back to Turkey and the legends surrounding Saint Nicholas (270-343).

Saint Nicholas was an early Christian saint, revered for his kindness, and given the title of patron saint of children. It is reported that after his parents died, he travelled and re-distributed their wealth to the poor. Saint Nicholas's generosity and love of secret gift-giving is what eventually grew into what we know as Santa Claus today through Sinterklaas.

Sinterklaas is a legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas, which originated from the Netherlands, where it has its own festival - The Feast of Sinterklaas. It is celebrated annually on the December 6, in various countries around Europe and the former Dutch empire-celebrating the name day of Saint Nicholas. Now, Sinterklaas has evolved into Santa Claus, making his way worldwide, and being an irreplaceable part of popular culture.

Whilst Christmas may seem like a simple holiday, focused on gift-giving and feasting with loved ones, it has a rich and intricate history behind it. It's fascinating how the holiday draws from festivals dating back hundreds and thousands of years, inspired by ancient cultures around the world.