This article was last updated on May 30th, 2020
The debate surrounding Christmas Gifts continues to rage in the 21st century, as consumers start to interrogate the economic consequences of festive spending with more intensified scrutiny.
Why Do We Give Gifts at Christmas? As with almost anything else associated with the Christmas tradition, the tradition of Gift Giving originates with the pagan origin of Christmas gift-giving.
How Did the Tradition of Gift Giving Start at Christmas?
There are few things which better symbolize the mystical symbiosis in marriage between the heathen and Christian traditions than the very act of Giving Gifts out during this widely celebrated “birthday”.
When the Christian community first adopted some of the pagan traditions which have now come to help symbolize the birth of Jesus.
The notion of giving gifts was justified by the story of the three wise men or the journey of the magi, all of whom are reported to have given gifts to the baby Jesus.
Among those gifts were the now-famous gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The significance of those three gifts remains the subject of considerable debate (maybe even some controversy) today.
The Biblical Archaeological Society is of the conviction that there were practical implications involved and that this wasn’t just about celebrating the birth of Jesus or recognizing the birth of a future King.
Then there is also the small matter which became known as Christmas Begging – and this mostly has to do with the development of the Gift Giving tradition in Europe.
Ace Collins, in The Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, writes that in its genesis the Christmas Day celebration was never a dignified affair and that those who celebrated it never set themselves such lofty moral goals.
Collins writes that Jesus Christ was never a part of the festivities at all. Instead, there was singing, drinking and rioting, and subsequent begging.
Stephen Nissenbaum, author of “The Battle for Christmas”, confirms this narrative, when he explains that a group of rowdy young men would visit establishment homes during these celebrations and demand handouts or have their homes raided for good measure.
So, the Gift Giving we have come to know of has evolved from giving gifts to the lower classes – as a practical measure to avoid further violence – to giving those gifts to children (with the help of Santa Claus).
When that evolution did take place, it developed into a marketing opportunity and gambit like no other, even though the motives behind the Gift Giving might be considered pure.
How Did the Tradition of Gift Giving Start at Christmas?
We all think prohibition in the United States was an act of lunacy but for a brief moment during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Christmas festivities were stripped away in Britain. That was potentially more dangerous than banning chips in the Manchester United dressing room and training grounds. The latter is a David Moyes joke, by the way.
In the same way that the player revolt ended when David Moyes parted ways with Manchester United – and the subsequent return of the chips was celebrated – the British celebrated the death of Cromwell and the return of the Christmas traditions under the reign of Charles II.
It is during this period that large bands of men marched onto establishment homes and started demanding money, liquor, and food. For many years, Christmas was an excuse to party and even loot in the United Kingdom and North America.
However, the first traces of this celebration – including the giving out of Gifts – evolving into a family affair are found in Germany. The acknowledgment and celebration of the birth of Jesus also became an opportunity for the sharing of food and fellowship among family and friends.
Any of us who are addicted to the British period and biographical dramas will be familiar with the tale of Prince Albert marrying into the British royal family. His wife was Queen Victoria.
It is during this period of transition that Christmas celebrations started to take on a new flavor in Britain and other parts of the world – primarily because of the sheer scale associated with the British Empire at the time.
Charles Dickens assisted with this evolution when he wrote a Christmas Carol in 1843. For anybody who has taken the time to read this literary masterpiece, charity, hope, love, and family become the dominant themes during Christmas. At the heart of all that is children.
It is estimated that it took the greater part of thirty years for the values of family, giving, and love to truly sink in and become an integral part of the Christmas tradition.
Even then, it took a little longer for British and North American churches to buy into the idea and recognize the day and all the festivities that came with it as being official.
Christmas Gift Giving Traditions Around the World
Christmas traditions will vary from country to country, and this hinges heavily on the narrative of Christmas that has been delivered in each of those global regions.
In the African context, the concept of Christianity is very much a European import but as is often the case with Christianity, natives of a given region have found a way for the Christmas story to blend in with local traditions.
The Giving of Gifts is among those traditions which have only recently been adopted in some of those countries – and not in their entirety either.
Christmas In Nigeria
Nigeria, being the largest economy on the African continent, places tremendous emphasis on cold hard cash as being a symbol of success and to a large degree of generosity. It then comes as no surprise that money is the dominant feature when Gifts are given out during Christmas in that country.
There is also a tradition, if not an unwritten rule, that in Nigeria a couple of days are actually dedicated to requesting the assistance of some kind from locals and family members who have not been in touch for months. That assistance does not have to be financial but often is. It is just less complicated that way.
Christmas In South Africa
South Africa is the one country on the African continent where European traditions still hold a very strong presence in most aspects of life but especially during the Christmas period. From the Christmas trees to presents under the trees and even in the stockings, South Africans have done their bit to help entrench British traditions.
In South Africa, children even leave milk and cookies out for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, in exchange for gifts.
Carols by Candlelight is also a hugely popular theme in the South African context. It is during these carol evenings that toys and clothes are donated to the less fortunate in those communities – as a generous gesture for Christmas. It is a form of gift-giving.
Christmas In China
The Chinese do not celebrate Christmas generally, whether that be official or unofficial. However, British traditions still feature prominently in administrative regions of China like Hong Kong and Macau. The exchange of gifts and cards are very common practices in both regions.
Christmas In Japan
In other parts of Asia, which are either secular or not Christian, the Gift of Giving during these celebrations is largely commercially driven. This is especially true in Japan.
Christmas In Mexico
While the practices in most of North America are similar, there is a unique element offered by Mexico on several levels. Chief among them is that Gifts are handed out on Christmas Eve and not on the more traditional Christmas morning.
In Mexico, children even still get Gifts on January 6, as part of the Epiphany – which marks the end of the Christmas celebrations. Those festivities would ordinarily have started on December 12. Suffice it to say, the Mexicans take these celebrations very seriously.
Christmas In The Netherlands
In a place close to my heart (my husband is Dutch) in the Netherlands. They will open their gifts as early as December 5th which is St. Nicholas’ Day Eve. One of their traditional gifts for children is that of a chocolate letter. It is the first letter of their Christian name!
Yum, I have received many of these from my inlaws when they visit at Christmas!!!
When to Give Christmas Gifts
Traditionally Christmas Gifts are given out on Christmas morning – after being delivered by Santa Claus – while in the more conservative and Catholic countries those gifts are actually given out on Christmas Eve.
In countries that include another range of festivities connected to Christmas – like Carols By Candlelight – Gifts can be given out to the less fortunate and the needy in the days leading up to Christmas. It is the practical thing to do under the circumstances.
There are also the gifts that are distributed to friends, acquaintances, neighbors, hobby clubs, teachers, and workplaces leading up the Christmas holiday.
This can be done in traditional or fun ways depending upon those involved. A modern twist on Christmas gift-giving is “The Secret Santa”. Those involved buy for one person (can be anonymous), usually to a certain value. Then everyone attends a celebration at which time they open their respective gifts – which can be thoughtful, themed, or just plain fun!
Why Do We Give Gifts At Christmas? – Final Thoughts
You now have a head full of why we give gifts at Christmas as well as a little of the history of Christmas traditions that are celebrated around the world.
The ball is now in your court as to if, how, where, and when you and yours celebrate Christmas.
Occasions to Give Gifts – here