Origins of the Tradition of Christmas Gift Giving

“Then they opened their treasures and presented him the gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”

In Biblical times, the gift of gold indicated the receiver stood in high standing, but giving gold to a child would have been unheard of during those times – that is unless the child was of royal blood.

Frankincense has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula and in North Africa for more than 5000 years. A mural depicting sacks of frankincense traded from the Land of Punt adorns the walls of the temple of ancient Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut, who died circa 1458 BC. The charred remains of frankincense, called kohl, was crushed and used to make the distinctive eyeliner seen on ancient Egyptians.

250px-Frankincense_2005-12-31 Frankincense was one of the consecrated incenses (HaKetoret) described in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud used in Ketoret ceremonies. The frankincense of the Jews, as well as of the Greeks and Romans, is also called Olibanum (from the Arabic al-lubbān). Old Testament references report it in trade from Sheba (Isaiah 60:6 ; Jeremiah 6:20). Frankincense is mentioned in the Song of Solomon (Song of Solomon 4:14).

It was offered on a specialized incense altar in the time when the Tabernacle was located in the First and Second Jerusalem Temples. The ketoret was an important component of the Temple service in Jerusalem. It is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible book of Exodus 30:34, where it is named levonah (lebonah in the Biblical Hebrew), meaning “white” in Hebrew. It was one of the ingredients in the perfume of the sanctuary (Exodus 30:34), and was used as an accompaniment of the meal-offering (Leviticus 2:1, 2:16, 6:15, 24:7). When burnt it emitted a fragrant odour, and the incense was a symbol of the Divine name (Malachi 1:11 ; Song of Solomon 1:3) and an emblem of prayer (Psalm 141:2 ; Luke 1:10 ; Revelation 5:8, 8:3). It was often associated with myrrh (Song of Solomon 3:6, 4:6) and with it was made an offering to the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:11). A specially “pure” kind, lebhonah zakkah, was presented with the shewbread (Leviticus 24:7).

Myrrh was used by the ancient Egyptians, along with natron, for the embalming of mummies.

According to the Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine, “The Messenger of Allah stated, ‘Fumigate your houses with al-shih, murr, and sa’tar.'” The author claims that this use of the word “murr” refers specifically to Commiphora myrrha.

Myrrh was an ingredient of Ketoret, the consecrated incense used in the First and Second Temples at Jerusalem, as described in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. An offering was made of the Ketoret on a special incense altar, and was an important component of the Temple service. Myrrh is also listed as an ingredient in the holy anointing oil used to anoint the Tabernacle, high priests and kings.

Myrrh was traded by camel caravans overland from areas of production in southern Arabia by the Nabataeans to their capital city of Petra, from which it was distributed throughout the Mediterranean region.

According to the book of Matthew 2:11, gold, frankincense and myrrh were among the gifts to Jesus by the Biblical Magi “from the East.”Because of its mention in New Testament, myrrh is an incense offered during Christian liturgical celebrations. Liquid myrrh is sometimes added to egg tempera in the making of ikons.

Myrrh is mixed with frankincense and sometimes more scents and is used in almost every service of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, traditional Roman Catholic and Anglican/Episcopal Churches.

Most people today think of these three gifts as being the original “Christmas presents.” However, we must recall that during the Roman ritual, known as Saturnalia, gifts were exchanged. The pagan rituals said “generosity would be rewarded with good fortune in the coming year.” During the early stages of Christianity, most Christian convert still celebrated their old Roman holidays. When Christmas became an official date on the calendar (approximately the 4th Century A.D.), it was natural to carry over the tradition of giving presents, especially as “Christmas” and “Saturnalia” were celebrated at about the same time of the year. However, that being said, gift giving and the Christmas spirit did not come so easily to each other.

Unknown-1Gift giving on New Year’s Day was a common practice during the Roman rule. This tradition began in the Dark Ages and continued in Britain through Queen Victoria’s reign. To this gifting tradition, we might add the legend of St. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra (beginning in the 4th Century). This St. Nicholas legend says the the priest bestowed gifts upon the poor throughout Asia Minor. The images of “Santa Claus” and of “Christmas stockings” can be traced to St. Nicholas’s life’s work. The anniversary of St. Nicholas’s death (December 6) was often marked during the Middle Ages with the bestowing of gifts on children.

Unknown Unfortunately, not all who knew of St. Nicholas kept his teaching sacred. Some European rulers demanded gifts of their subjects rather than to spread their wealth around. In the 10th Century, King Wenceslas (a Bohemian duke) began the practice of gift giving in the nature of St. Nicholas. He distributed firewood, food, and clothing to his subjects.

On December 25, 1067, William the Conqueror donated a large sum of money to the pope. This act planted the seed for change in Eastern Europe and later England and America. In Germany, many chose to give gifts to friends and neighbors anonymously. The Dutch did something similar, but they made it into a “treasure hunt” with written clues to where the gifts were located. The Danes were the first to wrap presents. They would put a small box into a larger one and then another one, etc., etc.

England at this time was under Puritan rule, and gift giving and all things Christmas were banned. The Puritans thought God did not want Jesus’s birthday to be a time of giving to others. Christmas was a day of solemn reflection. That being said, the upper class still gave gifts at New Year’s (a leftover tradition from Roman times). Some families also presented gifts to children on January 6 (old calendar January 17), which is “Twelfth Night” – a symbol of the day when the wise men gave gifts to the baby Jesus, twelve days after the Christ child’s birth.

Clement Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” was an 1820s sensation, and the idea of Christmas gifts became more accepted. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol emphasized the idea of gift giving, especially giving to the needy. Merchants took the idea to the next level. After the American Civil War, America was the center of “gift giving.” In the 1880s, Christmas gifts became commonplace in England, and by the early 1900s, Christmas had replaced the New Year’s tradition for gifts.

Catlogs, large department stores, dependable mail service, etc., all contributed to the gift giving frenzy known as Christmas. In the U.S., the average person spends $750-1000 on Christmas gifts. images



About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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