People have been giving gifts at Christmas for as long as we can remember. For most of us, we don’t remember a time without gifts. It’s just what we have always done. There are certainly a lot of children (and adults) who are more than happy to discover Christmas presents under the tree every December 25 morning. In fact, it’s probably the highlight of the entire season. But where did this time-honored tradition come from?
Steeped in Christian history, the practice of gift giving is symbolic of the story of the Nativity. Particular the visit to the Christ child by the Magi. In the bible story, the Three Kings (or Wise Men) traveled from the East following a star to find the Baby Jesus. With them, they brought 3 gifts to give him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Our regular holiday institution of giving Christmas gifts is meant to parallel this presentation as a remembrance of that historic event.
Of course, historians believe that the gift giving practice had much earlier roots. Long before the Nativity story, the festivals of the ancient Romans, particularly the festival meant to celebrate the god of agriculture, Saturn, was considered a time to offer thanks for their bounty of resources. These festivities took place December 17 through December 23 and were fairly bacchanal in nature, including feasting, partying sacrifice, and private gift giving. Even when Constantine converted to Christianity and ended all of the pagan celebrations in AD312, the gift giving custom was carried over and rationalized because of its strong ties to the story of the Magi. By the time we moved into the 20th century, the giving of gifts at Christmas time had become commonplace and a true cornerstone of holiday tradition. This is particularly true in the family home. It is something that fathers, mothers, and children always look forward to. Something that builds anticipation, expectation, and wonder. And whether the gifts are deposited beneath the tree by a speedy Santa Claus pulled by a sleigh of reindeer or left there with love by those who care the most, giving has a nostalgic quality that will never subside. The thought, care, and affection expressed in presenting someone with a Christmas gift is one of the things that makes the holidays so magical
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