Yesterday’s post explored the history of the Christmas tree.

Seasonal gifts have pagan origins but a Christian case can equally be made for them.

(Photo credit: Birthdaychoice.net)

As I mentioned yesterday, at winter solstice, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia which honoured Saturnus, the god of agriculture. People in the Middle East had their own pagan festivals. Besides being a time of feasting and drinking, gifts were also exchanged. These included fruits and nuts, festive candles and pottery figurines.

As Christianity spread throughout the Mediterranean countries, Epiphany became the day on which the faithful exchanged gifts, recalling the Magi’s visit to the infant Jesus. New Year’s Day was another time for gift-giving.

In the 4th century, Church leaders supplanted this pagan holiday with Christmas. Many of the pagan traditions — feasts, gift-giving and foliage displays — remained.

When the cult of St Nicholas spread throughout Asia Minor and Europe, his feast day of December 6 was a time of exchanging gifts. As he was known for giving anonymously, people carried on this tradition in some countries. Gifts for children, also reminiscent of the saint’s charity, were also important.

In the early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was a time for people to pay a monetary tribute to their monarchs. That said, some rulers, such as King Wenceslas — in reality, a Bohemian duke — considered December 25 as a day of personal charity. They gave money to the poor and to the Church. William the Conqueror was another ruler who also gave generously at this time. In 1067, he made a substantial donation to the Pope.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the clergy in Protestant countries began to shift the emphasis from St Nicholas to the Christ Child, Christkindl — later corrupted to ‘Kris Kringle’ in the United States. With that came a change in the primary gift-giving day from December 6 to Christmas Eve.

In Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Germany, Christmas gifts were given anonymously — as St Nicholas did — or were hidden, depending on regional customs. From this, one can see how the Secret Santa tradition developed.

Presents were exchanged within the family and with close friends. As I mentioned yesterday, gifts were sometimes hung on the Christmas tree.

During Cromwell’s Interregnum, Christmas was banned in England. Similarly, the Puritans — of the same mindset — banned the feast in New England. Once Charles II restored the monarchy in 1660 and when restrictions were lifted in the United States, Christmas gift giving resumed.

Popular homemade gifts included hand-carved toys and needlework. It would have taken months to create these, hence the notion of Santa’s Workshop where the elves are busy at work all year long.

The Industrial Revolution brought with it mechanisation of many items, among them toys and trinkets.

We speak of consumerism and last-minute purchases today, but in 1867, gifts were so popular that Macy’s in New York City stayed open until midnight on Christmas Eve!

By the turn of the century, an anti-consumerism movement began. In 1904, Margaret Deland wrote an article for Harper’s Bazaar, lamenting holiday materialism:

Twenty-five years ago, Christmas was not the burden that it is now. There was less haggling and weighing, less quid pro quo, less fatigue of body, less wearing of soul; and, most of all, there was less loading up with trash.

Doesn’t that sound familiar!

Even that long ago, a group of elitists started the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving — SPUG. Members included former President Theodore Roosevelt and J P Morgan’s daughter Anne.

However, retailers and the general public continued to buy presents, just as they do today.

We still have our Puritans — many in the Reformed (Calvinist) churches do not celebrate Christmas. We still have our anti-materialists.

As for the rest of us, may we continue to give gifts with a happy heart!

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