Why Do We Give Christmas Gifts?
Gift giving or exchange is a practice seen in pretty much all corners of the world. The occasions where gifts are exchanged might be different and the expectations attached to them may vary but it's still a part of life in all cultures. Buying, giving and receiving gifts is certainly part of the Christmas tradition in western society.
In fact it can sometimes be hard to feel that Christmas is about anything other than gift-giving and consumption. There are people who spend all year saving up to buy presents or buying gifts to spread the cost of Christmas, and others who spend the following year paying off the debt they've accrued in order to buy the necessary gifts and food for the festivities.
Although we might feel that gift-giving should be something that is joyous and spontaneous, an expression of thanks, friendship or love, there are definitely social obligations that come with getting people presents at Christmas. And if you get it wrong there can be consequences.
So why is Christmas a time for gifts?
From the Christian perspective giving gifts at Christmas can be explained in a number of ways.
Firstly the wise men travelled to bring Jesus gifts as a symbol of honour and respect. When celebrating Jesus' birth we can't give him gifts so we give gifts to others in a somewhat symbolic gesture of love and appreciation.
Secondly Jesus' birth is seen as a gift from God. So again gift-giving, especially to those who are in need reflects that Christmas is a celebration of the value of that gift.
In the Christian tradition the origin of the gift giver (Father Christmas) is often attributed to Saint Nicholas, a 4th century Christian Bishop, who was a legendary secret gift-giver.
But gift-giving during winter festivities goes back further than Christianity and can equally be attributed to Roman and pagan faiths that pre-date the gifts given to Jesus by the wise men. Origins of a gift-bringer in winter folklore and traditions pre-date Christianity and are more likely connected to the yule (midwinter) festival of Germanic paganism.
Modern Day Christmas Gift Giving
In modern times giving gifts has become a popular part of Christmas celebrations regardless of whether you are religious or not. We give presents to loved ones, particularly children, gifts of thanks to teachers, customers, employees and service people, and charitable donations to those less fortunate than ourselves.
Undoubtedly, there is an element of social expectation that surrounds this gift exchange. It can be awkward to receive a gift from someone and not have one to give them in return, and hard to decide who to give Christmas gifts. And it can be hard for children to understand why they might have fewer presents under the tree than their friends or than they did in previous years.
But ultimately hopefully we all give Christmas gifts with good reasons and accept them in the spirit they were given.