Christmas Trivia - Gift Exchange
Why do people exchange gifts at Christmas time?
With hundreds of billions of dollars in annual holiday sales, it sometimes seems that Christmas might be as much about the birth of consumerism as the birth of Jesus. As early as the mid-1800's editorials were complaining about the overabundance of Christmas shopping. By 1867, Macy's department store in New York was staying open until midnight on Christmas eve for last-minute shoppers.
However, the gift-giving tradition associated with Christmas appears to date back to two pre-Christian Pagan ritual holidays, Saturnalia, and Kalends, which involved the solstice and the new year. The gift-giving was a new year's (Kalends) tradition.
Early church authorities scheduled Christmas and Epiphany at about the same time as Saturnalia and Kalends, and with thematic similarities. Saturnalia's celebration of the rebirth of the sun became Christianity's celebration of the birth of the son of God. The feasting and present-exchange of Kalends became the Epiphany Feast associated with the gift-giving of the three kings.
A separate, less-well-defined gift-giving tradition seems to have emerged on December 6 among the followers of St. Nicholas, to mark the date of his death. Nicholas was a Christian Bishop who lived in Turkey and died in 345 AD. Nicholas was known not only for his generosity, but also for his belief that childhood should be a joyful time.
Both gift-giving traditions -- marking the new year and marking the death of Nicholas -- seem to have eventually merged into the Christmas celebration.
Some Christian critics of the Christmas gift-giving tradition point out that few elements of the Christmas celebration can be traced to the Bible, and that the three wise men's giving gifts to Jesus was an enterprise significantly different from giving gifts to each other. This critique strengthens the conclusion that gift-giving is one of many pagan relics associated with the Christmas season.