The history of Christmas gifts goes back long before Christmas even existed. In a pre-Christian Britain, Paganism was the predominant religion. Pagan festivals during the winter solstice included Saturnalia –a celebration originating in Pagan Rome of the god, Saturn. These festivals often involved activities we now see as hallmarks of a traditional Christmas, such as feasting, gift-giving, and ritual sacrifice.
Gifts in Pre-Christian Britain
With the advent of Christianity, other religions were blasphemous competition that needed to be eradicated, giving Christianity as much power as possible. Naturally, to ensure the end of Paganism, Christian festivals used the same activities and occurred in tandem with Paganism. Widespread Christianity in Rome featured gift-giving on New Years’ Day, beginning the erasure of Pagan festivities during the winter solstice.
Around 336 AD – 303 years after the death of Jesus Christ – Christian authorities declared the 25th December as Jesus’ birthday. As a result of this, the tradition of gift-giving shifted from all other religions and influences. Instead, the Three Wise Men were credited for starting the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas because they bore gifts for Jesus upon his birth. Some particularly charismatic early Christian rulers interpreted this to mean their subjects should bear them gifts. Thankfully, this interpretation was short-lived.
Early Modern Europe featured a tradition of Christmas begging. During this ‘celebration’, young, ‘rowdy’ men went from home to home demanding handouts from the gentry. Sounds like fun. Gift-giving during this period was frequently an exchange between upper and lower classes. This devolved over time, possibly due to the growth of the middle class.
With the Protestant reformation, gift-giving became more about children. This coincided with the desire of the elites to discourage young men from their rowdy festive begging, and the desire many parents had to keep their children at home and away from the ‘corruption’ of the streets.
Christmas As We Know It
More recent changes to the tradition of Christmas occurred in the 1800s. Before this time, winter gift-giving regularly happened on December 6th for St Nicholas’ Day (who we’ll get to momentarily), or in early January for New Year’s Eve. Before long, the poem, The Night Before Christmas and the novella, A Christmas Carol changed Christmas. The immense popularity of these works impacted the tradition of gift-giving. By the end of the 1800s, Christmas Eve was the most popular date for giving gifts in winter. As a result of this, toy manufacturers saw 80% of their sales happen in the 3 weeks leading up to Christmas Eve.
This led to retailers directly marketing towards children with hopes of making parents spend more money in the lead-up to Christmas around the start of the 20th century. What started as the few weeks leading up to Christmas became the entirety of December, and now arguably most or all of November as well.
In the early 2000s, it was estimated that U.S shoppers alone spent a whopping $4 billion every day during the Christmas shopping period, averaging out at around $1000 dollars per person spent on Christmas gifts. But enough of these almost bleak statistics, let’s talk about the Big Guy (not Jesus).
The history of Christmas gifts would be incomplete if we didn’t talk about Santa Claus. Sometimes referred to as just Santa, or St. Nick, or Kris Kringle, or Father Christmas; Santa Claus is every bit as synonymous with Christmas as Jesus.
St. Nicholas was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop, famed for generously giving to the poor. In one particular instance he gave dowries to 3 impoverished women so they wouldn’t have to become prostitutes. St. Nicholas’ name day was the 6th of December, and it was celebrated in all Christian nations.
Over time, St. Nicholas became associated with the Christian tradition of Christmas. This was largely due to the closeness between his name day and the established date of Christmas. Furthermore, his generous reputation became associated with Christmas and giving gifts. In 16th century Tudor England, Father Christmas – borne from St. Nicholas – was the spirit of a joyful party. Bringing good cheer, food, wine, and merriment, Father Christmas was depicted as a wholesome and lovable presence. St. Nicholas’ Day was no longer celebrated in its own right at the time. Instead, the Father Christmas feasting celebration was moved to the 25th of December. This made it coincide conveniently with Christmas Day.
Whether you grew up believing the jolly man in the red suit was bringing your presents, or whether your parents wanted the credit of getting your gifts for you themselves, the history of Christmas gifts is an interesting topic to explore this festive season. If you’re looking for a gift for that special someone, explore our extensive jewellery and silverware selections and see if anything magical catches your eye.
Bethany Massey – Digital Assistant (Content Creator)
Having graduated university with a BA in English Literature and an MA in Creative Writing Bethany then joined the AC Silver team as a content creator. Bethany spends her days writing content for the AC Silver blog and other luxury goods/antique blogs.