The Real History of Gift Giving at Christmas

The History of Gift Giving at Christmas

It is commonly believed that the history of gift giving at Christmas is an act done in commemoration of the gifts given to Christ by the three wise men in the Biblical tale. Exchanging presents at Christmas however does not seem to have such an easily explained, albeit it canonized, history!History of Gift Giving Three Wise Men

The common history of gift giving is told as an extrapolation on the nativity narrative: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and three wise men travelled out to him, following a bright star in the sky. They arrived at the stable on the night of his birth and gave him gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold (everyone knows that part of the story). The story goes that we give gifts on Christmas in commemoration of the gift giving of the three wise men. And, a lot of people will tell you that this is true. You can find numerous articles about it online, for example.

Some people attribute the origin of gift giving at Christmas by explaining Christ as a gift given to humanity by God. Although this is interesting, and rich in poetic beauty, this is a case of reading a narrative into the origin and history of gift giving.

<i>The history of gift giving at Christmas is actually more diverse than this commonly believed gift giving narrative suggests!</i> Tell me you are fascinated by this! It really is interesting …

It turns out that in Ancient Rome there was a Pagan festival, which included celebration, feast, and gift giving long before Christ, and hence long before Christianity, and in turn much longer before people started giving presents on Christmas. This festival was called Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn – the god of agriculture, seed, and time.

Originally, Saturnalia was on December 25, but it was later expanded into a 7 day festival that lasted from the 17 – 23. Although thankfully not all of the customs of Saturnalia were maintained, our celebration of Christmas on December 25th was originally a way of gathering followers and trying to compete with the pagan holiday in about the 4th century. After all, who in their right mind would want to give up Saturnalia? Christians provided them with a Christian alternative.

The history of gift giving at Christmas is complex and fascinating. There is no good reason for being ashamed of the Pagan roots of the gift giving traditions that we have. They really just make the whole tradition richer and more fascinating. The history of gift giving is even more complex, that its origins, as our gift giving moved from homemade (and food based) to industrial and consumptive. What a rich history we have indeed!

Merry Christmas!