I am feeling a great sense of relief that all our Christmas cards and gifts have been bought, written, wrapped and mailed around the world, with only the close family gifts waiting for Christmas day on Monday. A big job now done.
I started to wonder about the history behind the tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas. Of course, we all know that the Three Wise Men came to see the baby Jesus and presented him with gifts of gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense as a symbol of deity and myrrh as a symbol of death. The Magi, as these kings are called, presented Jesus with gifts on January 6, the day now celebrated as the Epiphany, which is also referred to as Three Kings Day.
However, did you know that the custom of winter gift-giving goes back well before the birth of Christ? The ancient Romans celebrated the winter solstice, which they called Saturnalia, between December 17 and 23. These festivities included a public banquet, lots of private merrymaking and the giving of presents to friends and family members. Around the 4th century AD, December gift-giving became much more commonly linked to the Biblical Magi than the Roman Saturnalia celebrations.
Another Christian tradition is linked to the secret gift-giving habits of the 4th-century Christian bishop Saint Nicholas. The inspiration for Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas of Asia Minor (present day Turkey) used to secretly give gold as gifts to the poor. Legend has it that he wanted to provide a dowry for the weddings of the three daughters of a poor man. As each daughter became old enough to marry, Nicholas dropped bags of gold down the chimney, and they landed in the stockings which were hung over the fire to dry. This is where the tradition originates of leaving empty stockings out on Christmas Eve for Santa Claus to fill with presents.
In northern Europe during the 16th Century, St. Nicholas began to evolve into different characters, most notably in England where he became known as Father Christmas. In Eastern Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands, St. Nicholas became Sinterklaas and his day is celebrated on December 6. On the eve of St. Nicholas Day, children leave out clogs or shoes rather than stockings to be filled with gifts. If children leave carrots for his horses, legend has it that Sinterklaas will leave candy in return. Dutch settlers brought this tradition to the USA and by the 19th century, Sinterklaas had evolved into Santa Claus and combined with traditions from other European emigrants, slowly evolved into the traditions we enjoy today.
The Victorian age also had a significant role in ensuring that Christmas became a more domestic and children focused celebration with gift giving on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The popularity of the 1823 poem, ‘The Night Before Christmas’ by American writer Clement Clarke Moore portrayed St. Nicholas landing his sleigh on the roof, emerging from the fireplace and filling hanging stockings with toys from his sack, really cemented the idea and reinforced these traditions. Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel, ‘A Christmas Carol’ with a reformed Scrooge handing out gifts and money on Christmas Day also supported the themes of festive generosity and family gatherings. Great Britain’s Queen Victoria and her marriage to German-born Prince Albert, which led to them having nine children, introduced yet more family friendly Christmas traditions. In 1848 a London newspaper published a drawing of the royal family celebrating around a German influenced decorated Christmas tree. This was copied by British people and soon, the tradition of gifts hanging from and placed around the tree became popular around the western world.
In the UK, another tradition comes from Queen Victoria’s reign when the nobility, after requiring their servants to work on Christmas day, graciously gave them the next day off and presented them with a “box” of gifts to take home to their families. This day off work after Christmas is still a national holiday in the land of my birth, Canada and other Commonwealth countries and is called “Boxing Day”. In the USA, of course, most of us just go back to work.
I leave you this week with quote from 20th Century and longest serving first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, which is not directly about Christmas, but which embodies my feelings about this time of year; “Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”
God Bless America and, as we say in England “Happy Christmas”!
– ENDS –