It is hard to imagine celbrating Christmas in the modern world without thinking about giving gifts. But, have you ever thought to yourself, “Why do we give gifts at Christmas?” In some ways, the tradition of giving gifts at
Christmas is a very ancient tradition. In other ways, giving gifts at Christmas is a relatively new development, as well.
In the Christian religion, the practice of giving gifts at Christmas is traced back to the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that were given to the Christ child by the three Magi. The magi were kings from the East, wise men who
traveled a great distance following a star, to find the Christ child and to bring him gifts. The visit of the Magi to the Christ child was originally celebrated on the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th. Over time, the tradition of
giving gifts came to be more associated with Christmas than with Epiphany. It is the time from Christmas to Epiphany in the Church calendar – from December 25th through January 6th – that is recognized as the “twelve days of Christmas” from the old Christmas carol.
To be certain, the ancient Church did not “celebrate” Christmas as much as it “observed” Christmas as a holy day. It wasn’t really until the modern era. The tradition of giving gifts to loved ones at Christmas became more and more popular as the middle ages ended and the modern era began. Various countries and peoples began to make gift-giving a regular part of the holy day (or “holiday”) over a period of time. By the time the Americas were settled, giving gifts at Christmas was practiced by many of the settlers. The early Dutch settlers to America introduced St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, to the new world. The early French and English settlers, in contrast, were more likely to give gifts at New Year’s or at Epiphany.
Ultimately, a common Christmas culture developed in which gifts were given on Christmas. In the nineteenth century, the idea of gift giving took on new dimensions, as the works of O. Henry, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Nast all helped to shape our concepts of Santa Claus and other aspects of the holiday.
Today, we all give gifts at Christmas for our own reasons. For some, it is a way to celebrate the Christian holy day. For others, it is a special time to let family and friends know that you care by giving gifts. At times, giving
gifts at Christmas becomes almost mechanical, and a chore; when this happens, it is worth stepping aside for a few moments to consider why exactly you give gifts at Christmas