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The History of Presents

The History of Presents

It’s been a fun and festive 2018 holiday season, with Christmas gift exchanges between family, friends, and co-workers coming fast and furious. If you’re like most people, you were involved in at least one “white elephant” gift exchange where you had the chance to “steal” another gift (at least once) in a game that has become a tradition at holiday parties.

Gift giving is a lot of fun, but it can also be one of the most stressful components of the holiday season. For a holiday party white elephant exchange, taking the easy way out and buying a gift card is likely not an option. Party goers will be looking carefully at all the gifts on offer and trying to get their hands on the “best” one, so thoughtful gift giving is the order of the day.

And we can’t forget the kids. When they’re little, it’s such a joy to buy them the latest toy, with all the bells and whistles. As they tear open the wrapping paper, you wish you could stop time.  When they reach their teen years, they crave the coolest styles and latest gadgets. For adults, gift giving is just different. Outside the realm of the holiday party, most adults crave a one of a kind experience, or a luxury gourmet item that feels special.

But how did our gift giving traditions start anyway? It turns out that Christmas gift giving was hijacked from pagan rituals of partying and gift giving to ease the dark and cold of the winter months. When Christianity took over as the official religion, church leaders decided to build gift giving around the story of the wise men bringing Jesus valuable gifts on the day of his birth. Even though scholars believe that Jesus was born in the spring, they incorporated this holiday into the pagan winter festivities and the rest is history.

But gift giving itself has not always been popular. In the United States, the Puritans that came on the Mayflower looked askance at these excesses and did not want anything to do with what they considered a pagan ritual. Their ban on Christmas gifts did not last long and soon it was tradition again in the US. But over the years, various groups have tried to encourage less consumerism around the holidays, and it has worked - for a while.

But the truth is retailers want the holiday season to be one of spending. And they hire advertisers to tempt us all into buying their wares. In the United States, they even introduced a jolly man named Santa in the early 1800s to bring gifts to all the good little girls and boys. He evolved from the 4th century monk, St. Nicholas, who was known to give everything he could to the poor. The Dutch version of St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, eventually became Santa Claus. His white beard, red suit, and North Pole hometown, were developed over the years by Coca Cola advertisements.  The image has stuck.

Regardless of where, when, or why our gift giving traditions started, it’s impossible to deny that finding something special for someone you love is a rush. And it’s up to the individual how much they want to spend and to what lengths they will go for everyone on their list. But at the end of the day, it really is the thought that counts, and in spite of the cold weather and the extra holiday stress, giving presents is fun….and so is receiving them.  It fortifies us all for the next phase of the season, the New Year, with its hope, promise, and those darn resolutions!