England Leads the Way
Even though the roots of the Christmas present extend to ancient times, the gift-giving tradition of today owes perhaps the most to Victorian England. The Victorians, who brought a renewed warmth and spirit to Christmas after it had experienced a long period of decline, made the idea of family (and particularly children) an integral part of the celebration. Also important to them was the act of helping the less fortunate in society. Friendliness and charity filled many hearts during their Christmas season, so giving gifts was a natural.
No one personifies “It’s the thought that counts” more than the Victorians. To them, the act of giving was far more important than the present, and the ultimate reason for giving a gift was as an expression of kindness, a sentiment that tied in nicely with the historical tradition of the holiday.
Accordingly, Victorians surrounded the act of gift giving with a great deal of ingenuity and merriment; simply tearing into a cache of wrapped boxes would have been to miss the point. Far more thought and preparation were in order during the holiday season.
Cobweb parties, for instance, were lots of messy fun. Each family member was assigned a color, then shown to a room crisscrossed with yarn of various colors. They then had to follow their assigned color through the web of yarn until they reached the present tied to the end. Yarn was also used to wrap small gifts: The ball was unwound, then rewound to conceal the present.
The Christmas pie was another favorite diversion, although it was not exactly edible. Small gifts were concealed in a large bowl of grain. After Christmas dinner, everyone gathered around the pie and took turns taking a spoonful. Whatever treat was in your spoonful was yours to keep.
Though Victorian gift giving was filled with the spirit of Christmas, much of the actual exchange was still done on New Year’s Day. It was only in the late 1800s that the custom was finally transferred to Christmas.
Across the pond, Christmas was taking a similar shape in America, where the Victorians greatly influenced the American Christmas, including gift giving. America expanded on the concept with the addition of Santa Claus, however, whose forerunner, St. Nicholas, was legendary for his generosity. The association with gifts was a natural one, and soon, Santa or one of his earlier incarnations became responsible for the presents left in an ever-increasing number of stockings.