In many different parts of the world, December 25 has become the ultimate gift giving day of the year. Tied to the Christian celebration of Christmas, presents on this day are now a central part of Western culture.
Yet, this tradition is actually rather new and wasn’t always associated with December 25.
Historically the day of Jesus’ birth wasn’t celebrated on December 25 until the 4th or 5th century. There is some possibility that this day corresponds with Jesus’ actual birth, but most historians believe it occurred at a different time of the year.
One reason it was moved to December 25 was a desire to Christianize a Roman festival that occurred during this time. From December 17 – 23, Romans celebrated “Saturnalia,” a feast dedicated to the agricultural god known as Saturn. During these days Romans would give various gifts to each other.
Similarly, the Roman New Year on January 1 was an additional day of gift giving in honor of the god Janus.
Outside of Rome there existed Celtic traditions of gift giving that revolved around the Winter solstice and various pagans gods.
These Roman and Celtic traditions were eventually Christianized and some preserved the custom of gift giving, but now in a Christian context.
Additionally, as Germanic countries were Christianized there also grew a devotion to St. Nicholas, whose feast was celebrated on December 6. He was known to leave gifts in shoes or stockings on his feast and this tradition grew in popularity.
In other countries January 6 became a primary day for giving presents to each other in honor of the Magi who gave the child Jesus three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Then in the 19th and 20th centuries immigrants from these European countries came to the United States. At this time the popular figure of Santa Claus was born, highly influenced by the poem Twas the Night Before Christmasand commercial campaigns by Coca-Cola.
As the years passed the various traditions of these immigrants were combined into a new celebration of Christmas that focused on gift giving and the overnight arrival of Santa.
While exchanging presents on December 25 is a relatively recent invention, many Christians have embraced it, recalling the gifts of the Magi, but also honoring the greatest gift given to humanity: Jesus Christ.
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