Why do we give gifts at Christmas?

UK shoppers are predicted to spend an average of £544 each this Christmas. US shoppers will fork over $862 apiece.

But why do we give gifts at Christmas, anyway?

Contrary to what the naysayers would have you believe, presents at Christmas are NOT an invention of Toys ‘R’ Us.

The earliest wintertime gifts

The history of giving presents at the end of the year goes way, way back. Many guess that winter gift-giving originated with the three wise men, but gifts predate Biblical times by a long shot.

During the winter-solstice celebration of Saturnalia, it was traditional to give gifts to bring good fortune in the new year. We’re talking as early as 500BC.

Presents tended to be quite modest, more symbolic than extravagant. Think candles, fruits, nuts, and inexpensive wine, with terra-cotta rings for the kids.

When pagan winter solstice celebrations merged with the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth, plenty of revelers brought with them the custom of gift-giving. But presents were soon shunned due to the connection with paganism. And they didn’t come back into vogue for centuries.

1500s: Royal (and compulsory) gifts at Christmas

Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled both England and Ireland from 1558 until her death in 1603, absolutely loved a good Christmas present. So much so that she made them legally obligatory.

The Queen set tariffs that specified the exact amount that each state official had to give to her come Christmastime. For example, an Archbishop had to fork over £40 to the Queen each winter.

Ever the fashionista, Queen Elizabeth also enjoyed material goods. History tells us that she simply loved the satin nightgown given to her by Sir Frances Walsingham in 1579.

(Which does sound just a tad bit scandalous, no? One wonders.)

1600s: The Frost Fair

Back before the ice caps started melting, humanity used to have legit cold winters. So cold, the Thames froze over, prompting Londoners to hold fairs atop the ice.

The ice was so thick that people mounted entire stalls and tents on the frozen river, including traders of earthen wares, brass, tin, iron, copper, and good ol’ toys. There were also printers, cooks, barbers, butchers, bakers, and even coffee-men – for when your mittens weren’t quite enough to keep the chill at bay.

As you might imagine, presents of all sorts abounded. People even got their name printed on commemorative cards and silver spoons to remember the event, with inscriptions like “This was bought at the faire kept upon the Midle of ye Thames against ye Temple in the great frost on the 29 of January 1683.

Sadly, the Frost Fair has never been repeated since London Bridge was rebuilt in 1831. The new construction interrupted the tidal patterns of the river that had allowed the ice to form. Not to mention that whole global warming thing. Tragic.

1700s: The Christmas Box

Money is a classic – if unimaginative – Christmas present. In the 1700s, it took the form of a “Christmas box,” which was common to gift to one’s tradesmen and servants. People felt inspired by the wintry season to give directly to the plain ol’ poor, too.

Some gave happily, like Norfolk clergyman James Woodforde. In 1788, he wrote that he had cheerfully given the oh-so-generous sum of sixpence each to 56 “poor people” in his parish, plus entertained some to dinner. He even sent dinners directly to those who were too lame to come in person.

Others, however, were rather resentful of the mounting cost of winter giving. In 1710, Jonathan Swift wrote “I shall be undone here with Christmas boxes. The rogues of the coffeehouse have raised their tax, every one giving a crown, and I gave mine in shame, besides a great many half crowns to great men’s porters etc.

Jonathan Swift: harbinger of Christmas grinches the world over.

1800s: Christmas is for kids

It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the heavy association of Christmas with shopping took hold.

This time period saw big department stores sprouting up like mushrooms in downtowns across the US and Europe. Along with them came advertising innovations like lavish window displays, Santa’s grottoes, and frenetic slogans like “Only ___ shopping days until Christmas!

Christmas catalogues prompted people to stock up on presents for the whole family, especially for the younger bunch. Britain’s industrialization, as well as the import of toys from Germany, meant the market was flooded with bright and noisy possibilities.

(Ideally with lots and lots of tiny little pieces that get stuck in the carpet.)

1900s: Charitable materialism

The late 1800s and early 1900s were fraught with intense social change. It’s thought that charitable gift-giving during this period served as a symbolic solution to extreme economic inequality. “Nowhere in Christendom are the poor remembered at Christmastide so generously as they are in American cities, especially our own,” the New York Tribune asserted.

However, charity arrived arm-in-arm with capitalist materialism. People’s close friends and relatives tended to receive much more extravagant gifts than the poor, who often ended up with the scrapings of people’s symbolic gestures. Perhaps times haven’t changed so much.

Finally, Christmas trees took root in people’s homes in the late 1800s, and by 1900 one in every five Americans was estimated to have one. Common decorations included nuts, strings of popcorn, or even oranges and lemons. And yes, gifts spilled out a-plenty from underneath.


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