Why are gifts given at Christmas? Journey to the origin of a millenary tradition

A short journey to discover one of the most characteristic traditions of Christmas: the exchange of gifts. You have to run up and down in time, from the Saturnalia of the ancient Romans to Santa Claus, passing through the gifts that the Magi brought to Jesus.

Because at Christmas we exchange gifts under the tree? Have you ever wondered where this tradition comes from? The answer must be sought very far in time. Indeed, that of Christmas presents is a custom that has ancient roots. Over time, it has transformed, crossing the different cultures and religions, but it has kept its core intact. The same that today leads us to struggle until the last moment to find the right gift with which to please a person we love.

The Sarturnalia of the ancient Romans 

Who knows if he felt the same trouble ancient Romans when the days of the gods approached Saturnalia, one of the most heartfelt holidays of the year. The Saturnalia fell right into the second half of December, precisely from 17 to 24 (as established in the imperial age). At that time, the settlement in the temple of the god was celebrated Saturn and the recurrence of the so-called golden age. It was done with a week of celebrations in grand style, which involved the whole population, including slaves, who could behave like free men for at least a few days. There was no work, there were no fights or wars, everything was still and celebrating. The banquets followed one another and it was incessant too exchange of small gifts, called just strenne. Among the most frequent gifts were the so-called lari, that is, figurines depicting the deities of deceased ancestors, who were believed to watch over families. The similarities between Christmas and Saturnalia, however, do not stop at the gifts. Even the ancient Romans, for example, in those feast days, decorated houses and trees with colored symbols.

The gifts of the Three Kings in the Christian tradition 

THEadvent of Christianity brought about a transformation of pagan customs. The days of celebration remained, but their meaning was revisited, as were the cultural references. The days of the Saturnalia became those in which they chose to celebrate Christmas, New Year and Epiphany. And the gifts? They became a symbol of an episode narrated in the Gospel, namely thearrival of the Three Kings to honor the newborn Jesus. These three rulers who came from the east, according to the Gospel account, brought the child of Bethlehem, gold, incense e myrrh. The identification between the Magi and the gifts also explains why, in countries with a strong Catholic tradition, even up to a few decades ago, the magical night in which gifts are exchanged is not that of Christmas but that of the Epiphany, on the 6th. January.

The advent of Santa Claus 

In most of the world, however, the tradition of Christmas gifts has suffered a further transformation. The figures of the Magi are intertwined with that of the bishop San Nicola, lived in the fourth century, in turn transfigured, over time, into what is now known as Santa Claus, namely Santa Claus. According to tradition, St. Nicholas saved three girls from a sad future of exploitation by giving them a dowry that allowed them to get married. The dowry consisted of bags of gold which he threw out of the window into their house. Just like Santa does with gifts for good children. Then, century after century, St. Nicholas lost his religious connotation to assert himself even in non-Catholic countries, as an elderly man with a thick white beard, dressed in red and very generous. Today it's his turn to travel the planet aboard a reindeer sleigh, to continue fueling the magic of Christmas.