Why do we give gifts on Christmas? It’s a tradition that we wait for all year long: giving Christmas gifts to family and friends. Making gift lists, shopping holiday sales, and exchanging gifts are synonymous with the Christmas season. But, have you wondered where the gift giving originated from and how it relates to Christmas’ true meaning? Let’s dive into the history behind Christmas gift giving and learn about how it has evolved over time.
The Short Answer
Simply put, we give gifts on Christmas for a number of reasons. Ask around, and chances are everyone you talk to will have a different explanation for why their family gives gifts on Christmas. Some are based on religious beliefs or cultural traditions, while others are based on familial traditions. Even the retail world plays a role in our Christmas gift giving. Read on to learn about the many reasons why we give gifts on Christmas—from historical traditions to today’s gift-giving trends.
A Biblical Connection
The tradition behind Christmas gift giving is, in part, rooted in the Bible. In the story of Jesus’ birth, the baby Jesus, along with Mary and Joseph, were visited by three wise men carrying gifts. According to the Bible, when the three magi visited Jesus, they delivered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
As a result, today’s Christmas gift giving is a Christian tradition inspired by the events of the first Christmas and the gifts that the baby Jesus received. Gift giving on Christmas is also tied to the fact that Christmas marks Jesus’ birthday. Much like we give gifts to celebrate a family member’s or friend’s birthday, we can also exchange gifts in celebration of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day. While modern gift giving often transcends religions, the history of Christmas gift giving certainly has its roots in Christianity.
St. Nicholas Day Tradition
Christmas gift giving is also associated with another Christian gift-giving tradition in December: St. Nicholas Day. December 6th is the feast day of St. Nicholas, who was known for his generosity and gift giving. Tradition states that St. Nicholas would arrive on horseback to give small gifts and treats to children, along with lumps of coal to naughty children. Clearly, this historic story aligns similarly with the story of Santa Claus and served as inspiration for the Christmas gift giving that we know today.
A Pagan Tradition
Christmas is undoubtedly a Christian holiday, but gift giving also has pagan roots as well. Gift giving also originated during Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival that honored the god Saturn. Held every December, this holiday and festival included indulgent feasts and gift giving, with people exchanging gifts like pottery, edible treats, and candles.
Given its pagan roots, Saturnalia didn’t last long. Christian leaders phased out this celebration since it focused on honoring a pagan god, Saturn. They encouraged the celebration of Jesus’ birth in December instead, even though some biblical historians believe that Jesus was born in the spring, not the winter. As Christmas celebrations heightened and Saturnalia celebrations ended, some of the traditions of the latter holiday were incorporated into the new one because they were so beloved. As a result, the gift giving that we know today may have its roots in Saturnalia and other pagan traditions, although it soon became adopted by Christianity as a celebration of Jesus’ birth as explained above.
The Commercialization of Christmas
As we know, Christmas is a Christian holiday, one with deep spiritual meaning for many families. However, Christmas also has a secular aspect as well, one focused on holiday lights, festive decorations, seasonal gatherings, and gift giving. These non-religious aspects of Christmas are celebrated by those who celebrate the religious holiday—as well as those who do not. It’s this secular component of the holiday that has also played a role in why we give gifts on Christmas.
Over the years, Christmas has become increasingly commercialized. Deloitte estimates that these days, retail holiday sales worldwide are between $210 billion and $218 billion. Holiday shopping hasn’t always reached these astronomical figures, but the commercialization of Christmas began quite some time ago.
As early as the 1820s, Americans would see advertisements for Christmas presents, showing that Christmas gift giving is nearly as old as the country itself. In the 1930s, Coca-Cola ads depicted Santa and, while not directly encouraging gift giving itself, those ads made Santa, the key figure of Christmas, a prominent figure in the retail world. Another beloved Christmas character—Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—was developed by Montgomery Ward’s department store to encourage kids to purchase its coloring book.
Over time, an increasing number of retailers began to market to consumers to promote gift giving during the Christmas season. Today, advertisements throughout the fall and into the busy shopping month of December encourage consumers to find the perfect gift for everyone on their shopping list. Black Friday sales after Thanksgiving kick off the holiday shopping season, with enticing deals encouraging consumers to shop. As a result, retailers and their marketing play a significant role in why we give gifts on Christmas and why holiday sales seem to grow year after year.
Personal Reasons for Christmas Gift Giving
Christmas gift giving might be rooted in biblical and even commercial traditions, but people also have personal reasons for why they give gifts on Christmas. Let’s dive into other reasons why these gifts are exchanged.
With the holidays come family traditions. If you reflect on why and how you celebrate Christmas, you’ll certainly discover some traditions that you carry on year after year. Perhaps you always are the host for a family Christmas Eve dinner, where you serve the same meal every year. Maybe you go on a weekend getaway to explore Christmas lights in a nearby town. These festive activities are rooted in tradition and may be carried on in your family for generations to come.
Gift giving also can be guided by family traditions—not only why you give gifts, but how you do. Some families allow everyone to open one gift on Christmas Eve in anticipation of the next day. Others participate in family gift exchanges where they draw names and select a customized gift for their chosen recipient. Friends or neighbors might host a secret Santa or white elephant gift exchange or a “favorite things” party where they bring small gifts for one or more guests, depending on the rules of the event.
These traditions help carry on gift giving from generation to generation, making it a staple of the holiday season.
An Expression of Friendship or Love
Giving gifts to friends and family members is an easy and thoughtful way to show you care. Obviously, giving gifts shows your recipient that you’re thinking of them, and you’ve put time and care into choosing a gift that you hope they love.
Gift giving can be an expression of friendship or love. You might give a small homemade gift to neighbors to send them happy holiday wishes. Giving gifts to friends and family members can show them that you love them.
A Show of Appreciation
Christmas gift giving can also be a way to show your appreciation for the meaningful people in your life. Typically, gifts of appreciation are extended to people you may have professional relationships with, so these gifts will be less personal but will still show your appreciation.
You might choose to tip your postal worker, hair stylist, or dry cleaning service extra around the holidays as a show of appreciation. Together with your children, you might work on creating thoughtful gifts for teachers that extend your gratitude for all they do for your child. If you oversee a team at work, you might share small Christmas gifts with them to express your appreciation for their hard work. Perhaps you have neighbors who are always helpful and gracious, and you share homemade treats with them around the holidays just to let them know how much you love being their neighbor.
These gifts might not be extravagant, but the tokens of appreciation will be greatly appreciated by your recipients.
A Long-Distance Greeting
Another reason to give Christmas gifts is to send a long-distance greeting to those family and friends that you may not see often. While you might not always be able to gather with these long-distance loved ones during the holiday season, that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate your love or friendship with thoughtful gifts. Sending a care package to someone special or choosing a gift that makes you think of your loved one is an appreciated gesture during the holiday season.
Trends in Christmas Gift Giving
The Christmas gift giving of today looks very different from early Christmas gift giving. Early gift giving took place around St. Nicholas Day on December 6th but then shifted toward gift giving on December 25th. Early gifts were small gestures like trinkets and treats, as St. Nicholas Day tradition called for small gifts that could be tucked under the pillows or in the shoes of excited children.
Consumerism and retailer marketing have dramatically changed the landscape of gift giving. Expansive marketing campaigns during the holiday season seemingly encourage buying, buying, and more buying. For example, two-thirds of surveyed consumers reported planning to spend $400 or more on Christmas gifts, with 43% spending more than $600, according to an Inmar intelligence survey. These figures highlight the increase in spending and consumerism from early Christmas gift giving.
However, Christmas gift giving is a personal choice, one that every family manages differently. Whether limited by budget or simply a desire to limit overindulging on gifts (or a bit of both), some families limit how much they spend and who they shop for. Some families adopt a four-gift rule for kids, with gifts that include something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. Other families, of course, may opt to give more gifts depending on their budget and preferences.
Today’s Christmas gift-giving traditions extend far beyond the immediate family as well, although, again, this is a personal decision. Some families may choose to purchase hand-selected gifts for every extended family member. Other families might opt to do an extended family gift exchange where they draw one person’s name and purchase a gift just for them. White elephant gift exchanges are another option, where you choose a universally popular—or a funny—gift and take turns selecting a wrapped gift for a fun holiday surprise.
Trends in Christmas gift giving, then, are as different as every family is. As your family grows, traditions may change as well. For example, grandparents might cut back on how many gifts they give as more and more grandchildren arrive. Being adaptable to every family member’s desires and budgets and honoring long-standing family traditions are thoughtful ways to guide gift giving during the holiday season.
Regardless of your family traditions, following basic gift-giving etiquette is important. Keep these tips in mind during the holiday shopping season:
- Keep gifts equitable. Avoid giving one family member an extravagant gift and another one a modest one. This is especially important for children who will notice the disparity.
- Don’t forget hostess gifts. If you’re attending a holiday celebration at a friend or family member’s house, bring a small gift to express your gratitude. A bottle of wine or scented candle with a handwritten note doesn’t cost much but is certainly appreciated.
- Say thanks. When you receive gifts, always show your appreciation with a verbal “thank you”—ideally followed up by a handwritten thank you note after the holidays.
- Think broadly. If you’re unsure of what to get someone, avoid items like clothing or jewelry that might be hard to choose based on your recipient’s taste. Consider experience gifts as well, such as tickets to a play or a gift card to a favorite restaurant.
The tradition behind Christmas gift giving has developed for many reasons. Even more, the reason why your family gives gifts might be different from another family’s reason. Christmas gift giving is a tradition that has grown and evolved over time. Please comment to let us know why you give gifts on Christmas or to ask any questions about this topic. When the Christmas season rolls around again, remember that we give gifts based on religious, cultural, and family traditions, combined with a nudge from retailers to buy their products every holiday season.