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Europeans have exchanged midwinter gifts with one another since ancient times. Until relatively recently, however, most of these gifts traded hands around New Year's Day rather than on Christmas Day. As Christmas became an increasingly important holiday, people began to exchange gifts on Christmas rather than on New Year's Day (see also America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century; Victorian England, Christmas in).

Roman Gifts

Historians trace midwinter gift giving back to the ancient Romans. The Romans bestowed gifts and good wishes on friends and family during Kalends, their new year festival. The oldest and, thus, perhaps the most "traditional" of these gifts were small twigs from the groves of the goddess Strenia. Later, the Romans added cakes and honey (symbolizing a "sweet" new year), and coins (symbolizing wealth) to the roster of traditional new year gifts. The Romans called these gifts strenae after Strenia. The modern French word for new year's gift, étrenne, echoes this old Latin name. In addition to exchanging gifts with friends and family, many Romans offered gifts and vota, wishes for prosperity, to the emperor. The Romans also gave one another gifts for Saturnalia, a winter festival occurring about a week before Kalends. Traditional Saturnalia gifts included wax candles called cerei, wax fruit, and clay dolls called signillaria. These gifts, too, expressed the good will of the sender.

Medieval Gifts

The Roman custom of exchanging midwinter gifts appears to have spread throughout Europe and to have survived well into the Middle Ages. In medieval England, however, people gave these New Year's gifts to those immediately above and below them in the social hierarchy. For example, peasants who worked on landed estates brought gifts of farm produce to the local lord during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Custom dictated that the lord respond by inviting them to a Christmas feast. The nobility brought gifts to the king or queen. The monarch in turn gave gifts to the members of his or her court. These gifts did not necessarily express affection but rather acknowledged one's place in a system of social rank. Perhaps more personal kinds of gift exchanges also took place. If so, historical records fail to mention them.

In England the New Year's gift flourished during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Some abuses did occur, however. In 1419 the City of London restricted its law officers from demanding New Year's gifts from the public. Apparently, sergeants and other officers had been promising cooks, brewers, and bakers that they would overlook past or future offenses in exchange for a gift of their wares.

Royal Gifts

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) relished her New Year's gifts. Court records indicate that the queen received silk and satin garments (once, a sea-green silk petticoat), jewelry and personal items made from precious metals (for example, a jeweled toothpick), perfume, cakes, pies, and preserved fruits. Her gentlewomen offered her embroidered cushions, handkerchiefs, pillows, and articles of clothing. In return Elizabeth bestowed gifts of silver and gold on her courtiers. The custom of presenting gifts to the monarch faded away in the eighteenth century.

Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Gifts

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the English began to give New Year's gifts to family and friends. Popular gifts included oranges, gingerbread, rosemary, wine, marzipan, gloves, stockings, and other articles of clothing, jewelry, and objects made of metals, such as snuff boxes, tea urns, pens, and watches. Children sometimes received little bound books, often texts of religious instruction. By the early nineteenth century, for reasons which remain unclear, the New Year's gift finally appeared to be dying out. Instead of disappearing completely, however, the expanding Christmas holiday revived and absorbed the ancient custom of midwinter gift giving.

Saint Nicholas's Day Gifts

In addition to New Year's Day, some medieval Europeans also gave gifts on St. Nicholas's Day. The St. Nicholas's Day gift differed slightly from the New Year's gift. On the saint's day adults gave gifts to youngsters as a way of honoring the patron saint of children (seealso St. Nicholas). Some researchers think that the custom of giving gifts to children on St. Nicholas's Day started as early as the twelfth century. At that time nuns from central France started to leave gifts on the doorsteps of poor families with children on St. Nicholas's Eve. These packages contained nuts and oranges and other good things to eat. Some researchers believe that ordinary people adopted the custom, spreading it from France to other parts of northern Europe. Other writers suppose that the folklore surrounding St. Martin may have inspired the traditions that turned St. Nicholas into a gift giver. In past centuries St. Martin, another bishop saint, was said to ride through the countryside delivering treats to children on the eve of his feast day (see also Martinmas).

Boxing Day Gifts

Boxing Day, or St. Stephen's Day, provided another occasion for midwinter gift giving in England. Many writers believe that the English custom called "boxing" can be traced back to the Middle Ages. In that era parish priests customarily opened up the church alms-box on December 26, St. Stephen's Day. Then they distributed the coins it contained to the needy. This practice gave rise to the use of the term "box" to denote a small gift of money or a gratuity.

By the early seventeenth century the Church's St. Stephen's Day tradition had inspired working people to adopt the custom of saving whatever tips they had been given throughout the year in clay boxes which they broke open on December 26. By the late seventeenth century they began to solicit tips from all those who had enjoyed their services during the year. They collected the last of these "boxes" on December 26, after which they broke open these containers and used the money to buy Christmas treats. By the nineteenth century the custom of boxing had so colored the character of the day that many people began to refer to December 26 as Boxing Day rather than St. Stephen's Day. Like medieval New Year's gifts, Christmas boxes took place in the context of unequal social relationships. Rather than express personal affection, Christmas boxes permitted the well-to-do to express appreciation for services rendered to them. The custom also presented working people with an opportunity to collect a little extra cash around the holidays.

German Christmas Gifts

The earliest historical records of Christmas gift giving come from Germany. As early as the sixteenth century some German children received "Christ-bundles" at Christmas time. These bundles contained an assortment of small gifts, such as coins, sugarplums, nuts, apples, dolls, clothing, lesson books, religious books, or writing materials. Some scholars suggest that the traditional Christmas bundle contained at least five things: a coin, an article of clothing, a toy, something tasty to eat, and a pencil box or other scholastic item. Parents also included a small stick in these bundles, which some writers have interpreted as a reminder that chastisement still awaited those who misbehaved. Parents told their children that the Haus-Christ had brought them their gifts (see also Christkindel). Two other German customs encouraged the preparation of simple gifts for the family. The Christmas tree and the Christmas pyramid, decorated with edible treats, such as nuts, apples, cookies, and candy, provided everyone with holiday sweets.

The Christ Child, also brought Christmas gifts to children in sixteenth-century Norway. Children left a plate or a bowl in an obvious place so that the visiting Christ Child could leave them a present. Moreover, in Norway, Christmas gift exchanges among friends and adult family members began as early as the sixteenth century.


Another old tradition of Christmas gift giving comes from Sweden. The Swedes called these gifts Julklapp, which means "Christmas knock." This name comes from an old Swedish custom whereby Christmas gift givers would knock on doors, toss in their gift, and run away. Recipients then tried to guess who had delivered the gifts. In addition, Julklapp usually arrived in some form of trick packaging. These surprise gifts added a dash of humor to the Christmas season.

Santa Claus, Christmas Trees, and Gifts

The custom of exchanging Christmas gifts among friends and family became widespread during the nineteenth century. In this same era Europeans and Americans began to adopt the German Christmas tree. At the same time Santa Claus became a popular mythological figure associated with Christmas in the United States. Both of these innovations encouraged the growth of Christmas gift giving - the tree by providing a beautiful location to display the gifts, and Santa Claus by serving as a new Christmas gift bringer. Unlike the medieval New Year's gift, or the English Christmas box, the nineteenthcentury Christmas gift circulated between family and friends and expressed the affection of the sender.

Although charity had for centuries been a theme of Christmas celebrations, it became increasingly important in the nineteenth century. Charitable gifts linked Christmas gift giving with the spiritual celebration of the holiday. Finally, in the twentieth century many American companies adopted the custom of distributing Christmas bonuses to their workers at Christmas time. Reminiscent of the English Christmas box, these gifts of cash rewarded employees for their hard work in the past year.


The midwinter gift has passed through many transformations in its two-thousand-year history. These gifts served different purposes in different times and places. They might symbolize good wishes for the coming year, affirm one's social rank, generate fun and excitement, redistribute wealth from richer to poorer, demonstrate affection, or serve as a means of honoring the spiritual significance of the holiday. The gifts themselves have changed along with their significance. The sweaters, neckties, and toys of today's American Christmas seem far removed from the twigs that the Romans exchanged with one another in honor of Kalends. Finally, several midwinter holidays developed gift-giving traditions over the centuries, the most recent being Christmas. In spite of its relatively short history the Christmas gift has become a central element of contemporary Christmas celebrations (see also Commercialism).

Further Reading

Henriksen, Vera. Christmas in Norway. Oslo, Norway: Johan Grundt Tanum Forlag, 1970. Hutton, Ronald. The Rise and Fall of Merry England. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1994. ---. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978. Restad, Penne. Christmas in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of AmericanHolidays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Waits, William B. The Modern Christmas in America. New York: New York University Press, 1993.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
References in classic literature ?
For far-seeing Olympian Zeus has given you a wife with many gifts and the blessed gods have brought your marriage fully to pass, and in these halls you go up to the holy bed of a daughter of Nereus.
He never sent gifts for the sake of the neat-ankled maid, for he knew in his heart that golden-haired Menelaus would win, since he was greatest of the Achaeans in possessions and was ever sending messages (44) to horse-taming Castor and prize-winning Polydeuces.
So Mr Dorrit bought a gift of each sort, and paid handsomely for it.
Besides the gift of these buildings, they have made other generous donations to the school.
Some people may say that it was Tuskegee's good luck that brought to us this gift of fifty thousand dollars.
He may offer me ten or even twenty times what he has now done, nay--not though it be all that he has in the world, both now or ever shall have; he may promise me the wealth of Orchomenus or of Egyptian Thebes, which is the richest city in the whole world, for it has a hundred gates through each of which two hundred men may drive at once with their chariots and horses; he may offer me gifts as the sands of the sea or the dust of the plain in multitude, but even so he shall not move me till I have been revenged in full for the bitter wrong he has done me.
Were not the son of Atreus offering you gifts and promising others later--if he were still furious and implacable-- I am not he that would bid you throw off your anger and help the Achaeans, no matter how great their need; but he is giving much now, and more hereafter; he has sent his captains to urge his suit, and has chosen those who of all the Argives are most acceptable to you; make not then their words and their coming to be of none effect.
To my weak judgment it hath ever seemed that his gifts are not equal to his wishes.
When his birthday is come, do you take TEN of the books, and give them to him yourself--that is, FOR yourself, as being YOUR share of the gift. Then I will take the eleventh book, and give it to him MYSELF, as being my gift.
But the completer, the positive, soul, which will merely take [25] that mood into its service (its proper service, as we hold, is in counteraction to the vulgarity of purely positive natures) is also certainly in evidence in Amiel's "Thoughts"--that other, and far stronger person, in the long dialogue; the man, in short, possessed of gifts, not for the renunciation, but for the reception and use, of all that is puissant, goodly, and effective in life, and for the varied and adequate literary reproduction of it; who, under favourable circumstances, or even without them, will become critic, or poet, and in either case a creative force; and if he be religious (as Amiel was deeply religious) will make the most of "evidence," and almost certainly find a Church.
And then he told all that Thistle had done to show his love for her; how he had wandered far and wide to seek the Fairy gifts, and toiled long and hard to win them; how he had been loving, true, and tender, when most lonely and forsaken.
"See!" the Gifted and Honourable Editor exclaimed, pointing to that injunction - "I am a painter and grainer!"