Why we gift on Christmas (And Santa’s role in the matter)
The simple answer is that we give gifts on Christmas because of the wise men (magi) who gave gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus shortly after his birth (Matthew 2:11). These scholarly men were “overjoyed” (2:10) at the fact of the Messiah coming into the world and were thus compelled to give him fine gifts. The famous evangelist Billy Graham said, “we give gifts to others to let them know we love them and value their friendship. Hopefully, our gifts will also remind them of that first Christmas.” Yet, this first Christmas occurred over 2,000 years ago, so what has kept the tradition going all these years? We could say that its place as a core religious holiday explains it but this would not be entirely correct. After all, the Puritans banned Christmas when they settled in America. Today, Christmas has become a highly secular event with many people who would not identify as Christians participating in the cheerful holiday. It’s a highly marketed event and critical time for retailers (beginning with Black Friday), and we do not necessarily condemn this. Rather, Christmas in America (even aside from its religious origins) represents tradition, freedom and generosity as well as the power of the free market. We at Troopto merely wonder when the hallowed act of Christmas gift giving to friends and family originated and consequently developed into common practice.
And now for the history lesson: during the Protestant Reformation, the “Christmas” of that time period was discontinued in much of Europe as protestants pushed away from the worship of saints. Catholic Europe had been giving gifts as part of St. Nick’s Feast Day probably beginning sometime in the Middle Ages. So besides being connected with the wise men’s gifts, Christmas gift giving is directly related to the figure of St. Nick. The concept of Christmas we know today was really created in New York City in the early 1800s by the Saint Nicholas Society who worked to make the “Christmas” (related to the St. Nick’s Feast Day) celebrated by Dutch immigrants with parties on December 25 more widely practiced and family oriented. Their central figure was Sinterklaas who was likely a Protestant adaptation to the Catholic St. Nick (Today, St. Nicholas’ Day is December 6th in Netherlands, gifts are given the day before). The character of the American Santa Claus was really solidified by two poems written in the 19th century. The first poem is called “The Children’s Friend” which established the character of Santa Claus and the second poem is the beloved “A Visit from St. Nick” (aka “The Night Before Christmas”) written by Clement Clarke Moore. As a result, we have reindeer, a sled and a cheerful, chubby, gift-giving man. The physical representation of the modern Santa was created by the cartoonist Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly in 1866. Fat men in fuzzy red suits now had their place in history. Notably, Christmas has developed slightly differently in regions throughout the globe (we’re focusing on the US) demonstrating the cultural impact on the holiday beyond its religious origins.
We all know the wonderful feelings this holiday brings. This is especially true for young kids exemplified by the fact that when we are pleasantly surprised we may exclaim, “I feel like a kid on Christmas!” It’s a truly magical time. It’s a time for family, friends and making merry. It’s a time for togetherness and lasting memories. It’s a time for eggnog. So while we would like to know more about why we annually give gifts on December 25th, it may not really matter that much. As long as we find meaning and memories in those gifts then the season has fulfilled its purpose. Christmas brings us closer and giving gifts is just part of this. So enjoy your holiday season, Merry Christmas and a happy new year! And remember the lesson that Dr. Seuss teaches us in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Also, when you spot an individual donning the timeless garb of Santa Claus don’t feel like you need to hide your excitement. Shouting out SANTAAAAA is perfectly acceptable…
**Works Cited: most of the historical information contained in this post was from “The real story behind Santa Claus” written by CNN religion editor Daniel Burke; we appreciate his article as most information on Christmas gift giving stops at the wise man story which we weren’t entirely satisfied for completely explaining the Christmas we celebrate today