Christmas giving brings in billions of dollars to the world economy each year. But where did this orgy of spending on our loved ones begin?
Christmas giving brings in billions of dollars to the world economy each year. But where did this orgy of spending on our loved ones begin? Is the story of the Nativity the explanation to this phenomenon? Or does the key lie in darker, or lighter, traditions?
The Biblical Perspective
On the face of it, giving at Christmas would be seen as a celebration that has its origins in the gifts presented to the baby Jesus at the Nativity. The Three Kings, alternatively known as the Three Wise Men, or the Magi, gave gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Each gift had its own prophetic significance. Gold was considered the appropriate gift to present to a king. According to the Bible, the three wise men had followed the star that they understood would lead them to the king of the Jews (Matthew 2: 1, 2). Incense was a gift for a priest and myrrh was used as a burial ointment.
On further investigation, the idea that the giving of presents at this time of the year originated with the birth of the Christ becomes less convincing. The Romans, for instance, celebrated the festival of Saturnalia more than two hundred years prior to the birth of Jesus. A significant part of the celebrations included the making and giving of small gifts.
The Church Intercedes
There is a strong case for the argument that the Catholic Church, in 350 A.D., chose December 25th as the date of Jesus’ birth to compete with the existing Pagan festivals. Interestingly though, we read that the Christians’ belief of Christmas Day being the true anniversary of Jesus’ birth wasn’t challenged until the Eighteenth Century. Scholars, such as Isaac Newton and the German Protestant, Paul Ernst Jablonski, began to suggest that the Church had changed the dates to coincide respectively with the Winter Solstice or the Roman Solar holiday, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti.
Christmas wasn’t always a time of merriment and peace to all men. Oliver Cromwell actually banned Christmas in England because Christians considered it to be nothing more than a pagan festival. Likewise, in the United States, the early Puritan settlers did not celebrate Christmas.
The Christmas traditions that are sometimes perceived as being eroded by today’s commercial extravaganza were really only introduced during the 19th Century. The Christmas tree, Christmas cards and Yule logs were introduced to the United States by European settlers. Similarly, the mythical giver of presents has evolved from St Nicholas, through Father Christmas, to Santa Claus.
The “spirit” of Christmas was never more clearly defined as in Charles Dickens’ fabulous story, “A Christmas Carol”. Dickens’ portrayal of Christmas as being a time for families and for thanksgiving lives on in our hearts. The transformation of Scrooge, from the bitter miser with his exclamations of “Bah, humbug!” to the benefactor of the Cratchett family’s bumper Christmas celebrations, still has the ability to bring a tear to the eye of the most hardened cynic.
The Commercialisation of Christmas
The increased wealth that was the legacy of the industrial revolution sparked the commercial explosion of the 19th and 20th Centuries. The globalisation of mass production techniques brought an unprecedented spending power to everyday people. From humble gifts, such as fruit and sweets, that were commonplace Christmas gifts just a couple of generations ago, to the saturation of technology based gadgetry vying for the hearts and minds of 21st Century parents, Christmas giving has become the cornerstone of retail businesses and manufacturers throughout the world.
- Durston, Chris, “Lords of Misrule: The Puritan War on Christmas 1642–60”
- Mikkelson, Barbara and David P., “The Claus That Refreshes”