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Christmas Was Not Always Like This (Part Three: Christmas and Gift-Giving)

How did gift-giving become synonymous with Christmas? Read the final chapter of our three-part series on the history of Christmas.
by Faith+Lead | December 18, 2019

Word & World is a quarterly journal of theology, published by the faculty of Luther Seminary, that is meant for readers who are concerned for Christian ministry in and to the world. The journal seeks to relate the word of God to the contemporary world and to relate theology to Christian ministry.

This three-part series includes excerpts from an article written by Bruce David Forbes, former professor of religious studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. They were originally published in the Fall 2007 issue of Word & World. You can read the entire article here.

Mark Granquist
Editor, Word & World

Christmas Was Not Always Like This (Part Three: Christmas and Gift-Giving)

By Bruce David Forbes

Read Part One and Part Two.

It is often stated that we exchange presents at Christmastime because the wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus. Have gifts always played such a central role in Christmas celebrations? The simple answer is no. While earlier observances at times involved token gifts, Christmas gift-giving came to special prominence in the 1800s, for several complicated reasons.

In the early, medieval, and Reformation eras Christmas was not primarily about families and children but about the activities of adults, in the church or in the village. Pre-Christian Roman winter activities included small token gifts, and various early Christmas traditions may have included little gifts as well, but for the average person, most money and energy was spent on food, alcohol, games, and general frivolity, plus worship attendance. In the Reformation era, adults gathered in local churches for special Christmas Masses, and villagers also enjoyed boisterous times of feasting and drinking in the community taverns. In medieval England peasants would bring a portion of their harvest as an offering to nobility who controlled the land, and in return the lords sponsored Christmas feasts, but these exchanges of social obligation were unlike today’s gifts of personal affection. In general, gift-giving was not a central part of Christmas.

Small gifts for children did arise in association with the annual remembrance of Saint Nicholas, but this was earlier in December and not on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Nicholas is a figure so shrouded in legend that it is difficult to tell what is historical and what is not, but he apparently was a bishop of Myra (present-day Turkey) in the early 300s.

One of the best-known Nicholas legends claims that, over a series of evenings, he secretly delivered three bags of gold to the home of a poor family so that the three daughters might have dowries that allowed them to be married instead of being consigned to lives of slavery or prostitution. Augmented by other legends, Nicholas developed a reputation as a protector of children and youth and a generous benefactor. His feast day was December 6, and eventually some cultures celebrated this popular saint with token gifts on the eve or day remembering his death.

In the 1100s French nuns secretly brought token gifts to poor children on Saint Nicholas Eve, and Saint Nicholas markets developed in late medieval Europe where parents could buy cookies, candy, and small toys for their children. Again, keep in mind that this was in early December, in the season leading up to Christmas, not on December 25.

In the 1700s and 1800s industrialization led to the mass production of commodities and the development of a consumer culture, which inevitably had an impact on Christmas. A decisive shift came when businesses recognized the marketing possibilities associated with holidays. The previous business attitude was represented by Scrooge in Dickens’s Christmas Carol, when he complained that holidays were simply a way of picking his pocket because he had to pay people for no work.

However, with the recognition that holidays held potential for the sale of additional products, whether food, clothing, decorations, or gifts, businesses not only tolerated holidays like Christmas but actively promoted them. Regarding Christmas, gift-giving traditions already existed in association with both Saint Nicholas Day and New Year’s Day.

In the United States in the 1800s, for reasons we do not yet fully understand, those gift traditions seem to have migrated across the calendar and both converged on Christmas. This can be seen especially in the American mutation of Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus, traced through the writings of Washington Irving, the poem “The Night Before Christmas,” and the illustrations of Thomas Nast.

Saint Nicholas, a bishop and saint, was defrocked, losing his bishop’s robes and religious authority, to become a kindly, jolly grandfather figure who delivered presents at Christmas instead of in early December. The public embraced Santa Claus, businesses promoted him, and Christmas became a dominant, nearly universal cultural celebration in the United States.

The late nineteenth century was also the time when handmade gifts gave way to manufactured goods. To trace the commodification of the holiday, we can chart the first appearances of many of the products we now associate with Christmas, most of which arose in the nineteenth century with further developments in the twentieth.

The first Christmas card appeared in England in 1843, with widespread use in the United States in the second half of the century. Christmas trees were sold on the streets of New York as early as 1840, light bulbs for Christmas trees first appeared in the 1880s, and glass ornaments appeared in the 1890s. Wrapping paper appeared at the end of the nineteenth century and became more colorful in the twentieth. The list goes on and on.

Gifts certainly have become central to the modern American Christmas. Surveys indicate that ninety-seven percent of Americans buy Christmas presents, totaling more than $200 billion annually. One estimate claims that twenty percent of retail sales in the United States are for Christmas purchases of one kind or another. It is not hard to claim that gift-giving has become the major activity of the modern American Christmas season.

About the Author

Bruce David Forbes is a former professor of religious studies at Morningside College, Sioux City, Iowa. He is the author of Christmas: A Candid History (University of California, 2007) and the co-editor of two other books about religion and popular culture.

Further Resources

Go deeper with these articles from Word & World, Fall 2007:

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