There is not a more recognizable symbol of Christmas in the commercial world than a wrapped gift. Many people find the Christmas season a blur of shopping while they search for that perfect Christmas gift for everyone on their list. Television programs, magazines and web sites all devote themselves to offering the perfect solution for the perfect gift no matter who you could be shopping for. Children fill out long lists for their parents (and Santa) in hopes of seeing piles of presents under the Christmas tree. But with all the hustle and bustle for presents many may wonder where did the tradition of giving Christmas presents begin?
While many people would assume Christmas to be only a religious holiday, Christmas is a widely observed secular festival. For most people who celebrate Christmas, the holiday season is characterized by gatherings among family and friends, feasting, and most importantly, gift giving.
Historians are unsure exactly when Christians first began celebrating Christmas. Most scholars do believe that Christmas originated in the 4th century as a Christian substitute for pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Before the introduction of Christmas, each year beginning on December 17 the Romans honored Saturn, the ancient god of agriculture, in a festival called Saturnalia. This festival lasted for seven days and included the winter solstice, which usually occurred around December 25. During Saturnalia the Romans feasted, postponed all business and warfare, exchanged gifts, and even temporarily freed their slaves. This is believed to be the origin of the Christmas gift giving tradition.
While the Christmas present tradition has taken many forms, it was in the United States and Canada that many elements of modern Christmas celebrations did not emerge until the 19th century. Before then (believe or not!) Christmas had been an ordinary workday in many communities; this was especially true in New England, where early Puritan objections to Christmas celebrations remained highly influential. Despite the Puritan influence, an English tradition that survived in some parts of North America involved Christmas revelers that would dress in costume and progress from door to door to receive gifts of food and drink. Most holiday gifts then were limited to small amounts of money and modest presents passed from the wealthy to the poor and from masters to their servants. Families almost never exchanged Christmas gifts among themselves.
This began to change with the rapidly expanding industrial economy of the 19th century which not only flooded the market with new goods for sale, but also helped establish a new middle class. This middle class was one that placed special value on home and family life. Christmas gained increased prominence because many people believed it could draw families together and honor children. Giving gifts to children and loved ones eventually began to replace the raucous public celebrations of the past, and Christmas became primarily a domestic holiday.
This new custom of Christmas gift giving allowed the marketplace to exert an unprecedented influence on holiday celebrations. The commercial innovation of the department store and mass advertising further expanded the custom of exchanging Christmas gifts. Seasonal retail sales helped fuel the economy which caused merchants and advertisers to become some of the season’s most ardent promoters. Even early on many holiday celebrants regretted these changes, and began voicing the now common lament that Christmas had become too commercial.
Christmas also gained new importance and prominence among urban residents. Cities had become crowded with immigrants, who would introduce a wide variety of religious and cultural practices to North American life. Celebrating Christmas became a way for people from different parts of the world to create a sense of community in the city. The holiday forged a broad, nondenominational sense of Christian spirit and promoted an idealized sense of communal good will. Christmas presents became a way of sharing good will and best wishes for all those close to you.