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History of Holiday Gift-Giving

In my quest to relate the giving of Christmas gifts to the concept of charity, I came across a true history of the tradition of gift-giving. I assume that most of you, like myself think that the giving of gifts at Christmas dates to when the Three Kings brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem. I sure thought so. But, we are both wrong.

The tradition of gift-giving at Christmas actually goes way back before the days of Christ during the times when the ancient Romans celebrated the new year honoring their harvest god, Saturn, and their god of light, Mithras. They would decorate their homes with evergreens, eat special feasts, and give gifts. Sound familiar?

Then, Jesus was born and Christianity began to sweep the world. The organizers of the Christian faith wanted nothing to do with the pagan custom of giving gifts to each other. But, as the Church struggled to rid the people of their pagan traditions, the giving of gifts was a tradition the people did not want to stop. So, the Church decided to set the celebration of the birth of Christ at around the same time as the pagan celebration of the New Year. And, they justified the giving of gifts as symbolism for the fact that Christ was a gift to the world.

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church stepped in and once again tried to ban the giving of gifts because of its pagan origins. But soon after, Saint Nicholas, supposedly the Greek bishop of Myra in Turkey, came on the scene. Most of the stories about Saint Nicholas are conjecture – very few can be historically corroborated. But, he became known as the patron saint of children and took a particular affection to helping the poor. Much of the today’s lore about Santa riding in a flying sleigh, delivering gifts in stockings by the fireplace, and having little men as helpers are drawn from comparisons made to the Germanic god, Odon, who pre-dates Christ. Wow – another surprise for me.

Saint Nick grew in popularity and it is believed that by the 10th century, most Christians were celebrating in his honor by giving gifts at Christmas time. These gifts were usually sweet treats, like oranges, or useful handcrafted items. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that gift-giving started to take on its commercial tone. And, since the birth of advertising the mid 1800s, the meaning of Christmas was changed forever.

But when did the concept of exchanging gifts with each other merge into today’s common practice of charity at Christmas time? That’s what I was ultimately searching for.

It wasn’t until the time of Victorian England, when the people had overcome a great period of decline, that the concept of charity at Christmas time actually began. Many public charities popped up to help care for the poor, and Christmas became a time for the wealthy to make donations to further spread the spirit of giving beyond just the upper class. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was first published in 1843 during the Victorian era and was a true depiction of the times.

Whatever the history of the gift-giving tradition, one thing is for sure: charity begins at home. So, as you are exchanging your gifts with your loved ones this year, why not consider giving a little something to those who don’t have anyone to exchange with?
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