The Gift of the Christmas Present
The practice of exchanging gifts at a winter celebration is can be traced back before the birth of Christ to the Roman celebration Saturnalia. They would exchange lucky fruit gifts called Stenae, and would have a big feast, just as most people do today. But Christmas gift giving grew following the birth of Christ when the Three Wise Men traveled a long distance to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn baby Jesus. Since that time, gift giving has evolved into many seasonal stories and the stuff of Christmas legend. St. Nicholas and his associates were widely known for their charitable acts. In their honor, French nuns in the 1200s brought presents to the homes of poor children on the eve of St. Nicholas’ feast day, December 6.
But in 1700s England, gift giving wasn’t as charitable an act. Groups of poor boys and men would simply march into the homes of the wealthy and demand gifts of food, drink and cash. Because their servants and peasants insisted their employers treat them as equals, they felt they had no choice but to comply with their demands.
It was around this same time that in America, gift-giving custom had become popular. Friends and family often exchanged money and food, and at times, everyone in a community received apples, scarves or other handmade gifts for Christmas. When the Christmas tree became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, small toys were tied to its branches, which led to the tradition of wrapping the gifts in colorful wrap and decorations. Before the Industrial Revolution, most children’s toys were also homemade, but by the 1800s they were made quickly and affordably in factories and were readily available. It was after the Industrial Revolution that Christmas shopping evolved into a custom of its very own. Even back then, there were large crowds, long lines at the cashier, and traffic jams that consisted of carriages and pedestrians instead of cars.
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