Where and when did the tradition of exchanging Christmas gifts start?

Exchanging Christmas gifts

The origin of gift giving seems to have multi-faceted roots.

We have many recorded events in history that show the giving and receiving of gifts dates back at least to the 4th century. St. Nicholas, a Christian Bishop, was known for his generosity in giving to those less fortunate than he, as well as giving to children of all backgrounds simply because he felt they needed to savor their childhood, and have joyous times to remember (contrary to the beliefs of that time, which would suggest that boys even as young as 8 be sent to work to help earn income for their families and girls as young as 5 to help their mothers with the housework and meal preparation). The most common gift given were homemade foods and sweets, oranges (this was a huge treat due to the fact they were very rare), handcrafted gifts such as socks, sweaters, dresses, nightgowns, blankets, tables, chairs, and other handmade useful items. This tradition began with St. Nicholas in Turkey. It moved throughout the world very quickly, and before the 10th century is is supposed that nearly every country was participating in this exchange.

Many people believe that the tradition of gift giving started in the year of our Lord within the first year of Christ's birth as the 3 wise men/kings brought offerings to honor him.

Perhaps the sharing of gifts is symbolic of the connection to words of Jesus at the Last Supper when he said "WHATEVER YOU DID UNTO ONE OF THE LEAST, YOU DID UNTO ME".

Some people may not realize that during the first 300 hundred years after Jesus Christ died, Christianity was illegal. Rome ruled, Caesar was believed to be a God and if the Romans found out you were a Christian, you could be put to death. So preaching the gospel was very risky stuff.

2,000 years ago, the educational systems we take for granted today did not exist. Who were the people that had the ability to write back then? Well, they were among the most educated people in society. The ability to read and write was the domain of the scholars in society at the time. When they wrote about the Gospels, they did so knowing it could mean certain death by the Romans who believed Caesar was God. In spite of that, they wrote the gospels about the many events in the life of Jesus Christ to give testimony to what they saw. Many people wrote. Many events were witnessed by many different people.

It wasn't until the reign of Constantine I, when he removed the penalties for professing Christianity in 313 AD that this began to change. And change it did. Christian missionaries traveled across the empire, steadily winning converts and establishing Christian communities and by 380 AD, Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire.

While some people chose to question these events because they didn't see them, that is exactly why this event is so powerful. It is accepted as a matter of faith by most people unlike anything else in our lives.

Many factors and historical practices have contributed to the event that we know today as Christmas.

For example, some of the customs were adopted from non-Christian sources. U.S. Catholic, in fact, said: "It is impossible to separate Christmas from its pagan origins."

The Encyclopedia Americana explained: "Most of the customs now associated with Christmas were not originally Christmas customs but rather were pre-Christian and non-Christian customs taken up by the Christian church. Saturnalia, a Roman feast celebrated in mid-December, provided the model for many of the merry-making customs of Christmas. From this celebration, for example, were derived the elaborate feasting, the giving of gifts, and the burning of candles."

Regarding the custom of gift giving, the journal History Today noted: "The giving of presents at the midwinter feast almost certainly began as a magical more than as merely a social custom. Saturnalia presents included wax dolls, given to children. A charming custom, no doubt, by times of record, but with a macabre past: even contemporaries thought this probably a vestige of human sacrifice, of children, to aid the sowing."

The New York Times of December 24, 1991, featured an article on the origins of Christmas customs, including gift giving. Simon Schama, professor of history at Harvard University, wrote: "Christmas itself was superimposed over the ancient festivals that celebrated the winter solstice . . . In the third century, when sun cults like the Mithraic religion of Persia found their way to Rome, days in December were given over to celebrate the rebirth of Sol Invictus: the invincible sun. . . .

"The early Church in Rome had a particularly hard battle against two other great pagan festivals, the week-long Saturnalia, which began Dec. 17, and the Kalends, which greeted the New Year. The first festival was a time of licensed misrule, often presided over by a lord of merriment, not so much Santa as fat Saturn himself, the orgiast of eating, drinking and other kinds of naughtiness. It was during Kalends, when the year changed, however, that gifts were ritually exchanged, often tied to the boughs of greenery that decorated houses during the festivities.

"The attitude of the early church toward all this indecent jollity was predictably frosty. Its fathers, notably the fulminating St. John Chrysostom, urged no compromise with heathen abominations. . . . Since there was no general agreement about the exact date of the birth of Jesus . . . , it must have seemed helpful to have it supersede the Saturnalia . . . So the rebirth of the sun became instead the birth of the Son of God . . .

"In the same way, the Kalends were replaced by the Feast of the Epiphany, and the gifts and trinkets that pagan Romans had given each other became instead the homage paid by the three kings to the new King of the World. By the middle of the fourth century, the basic features of the Christmas calendar were set for good."

While historical data supports the influence of pagan practices on the origin of Christmas and its customs, many argue that such origin really does not matter. Responding to Professor Schama's article, early this year a retired rabbi wrote in a letter to the Times editor: "The origins of an institution have nothing to do with its value today." Regarding Christmas and other such celebrations, he claimed: "Their celebrants endow them with a new meaning that gives purpose to their own lives and lifts their spirits in exultation."

Answer2: The New Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges the date of Christ's birth is not known. According to the hypothesis accepted by most scholars, the birth of Christ was assigned the date of the winter solstice (December 25 in the Julian Calendar) because on this day as the sun began its return to the northern skies, the pagan devotees of Mithra celebrated the birthday of the invincible sun. Christmas originated at a time when the cult of the sun was particularly strong in Rome. In view of the irrefutable evidence at hand, in harmony with the scriptures Jehovah's Witnesses refrain from sharing in Christmas celebrations. In harmony with the Scriptures, they strive to practice " the form of worship that is clean and undefiled from the standpoint of our God, by keeping themselves without spot from the world."- James 1:27.