It’s possible to trace the practice of giving gifts at Christmas time to early pagans. The midwinter festival was a time for feasting, drinking, performing skits and ritualistic begging.
Olde England Customs
Centuries later, Christmas Wassailers were rewarded for their performances with money, a drink or a treat. That is what the songs “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” “Deck the Halls,” “Here we come a Wassailing” and other songs are about. They were meant to be sung by the less fortunate at the doors of their more wealthy neighbors in anticipation of a reward.
Christmas tended to be a rather rowdy celebration until Oliver Cromwell outlawed it England in the 17th century. It was also against the law to celebrate Christmas in colonial Jamestown and Puritan New England in the New World.
St. Nicholas Day
In other countries, children put out their socks or shoes to be filled on St. Nicholas Day (December 6 in Western Christianity and December 19 in Eastern Orthodox Christianity). In some cultures, children received presents on Epiphany (January 6), when the Wise Men brought gifts to the baby Jesus.
The Development of Santa Claus
It really did not become customary for children, as well as other members of the family, to receive presents on Christmas Day until the late 1800s in the U.S. and England. In the 1800s, American authors and poets introduced the kindly figure of Santa Claus and traditions such as the Christmas tree in an attempt to instill some gentility back into the holiday. The poem, The Night Before Christmas, had a lot to do with the adoption of the Santa Claus legend in the United States and the practice of giving gifts to children on Christmas Day rather than on St. Nicholas Day or Epiphany.
Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, introduced many of our favorite Christmas customs to England, including the Christmas tree and gingerbread, in the late 1840s. The Christmas tree was decorated with presents, cookies and candles. The treats and presents were meant to be removed by the children who were brought in to view it on Christmas Eve. The tree was not a semi-permanent, decorative object, as it is today. By the late 1800s, celebrating Christmas as a holiday became acceptable again.
In the old days, benevolent figures like St. Nicholas, La Befana, the ChristKindle, and Sinterklaas brought their offerings to children in conventional ways — by walking, coming in the door or window or riding a horse. So how did our Christmas tradition evolve to the idea of Santa Claus flying through the air on a magic sleigh? It may be a throwback to a pagan belief, as many Christmas traditions are. Pagan Germans believed the god, Oden, flew through the air during their mid-winter festival. They feared him, because they believed he could tell who was good and who was bad, and would decided who would die and who would live. For this reason, they stayed inside at night. Doesn’t this remind you of the song?
He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.
The Night Before Christmas
Children began believing in Santa arriving on the housetop in a sleigh with reindeer after a children’s poem was published in New York in 1821, and again when “The Night Before Christmas” was published in 1843.
The concept of elf helpers came later, but elves and magical beings had been associated with mid-winter celebrations since pagan times. No one had ever suggested Saint Nicholas, la Befana, or any other harbingers of the Christmas season were elves until Moore called Saint Nicholas an “elf” in The Night Before Christmas. Santa’s elf helpers were popularized by another American children’s poem that described them making treats and toys to fill stockings in 1857.
Santa’s North Pole Home
The concept of Santa living at the North Pole came later, around 1870. Newspapers were full of stories about expeditions to the cold, desolate and snowy place. Since Christmas was a winter tradition in the West, it was natural to connect Santa with a snowy home. Thomas Nast is believed to have been the originator of the idea, as he drew Santa at the North Pole in the late 1800s.
Gift Giving Today
So, that is how the concept of gift giving gradually shifted from just giving to the less fortunate, to giving small treats and presents to children on a dierent day, to giving gifts on Christmas Day, not only to children but to also to other members the family, to our modern day practice of gifting to the pets, the postal carrier, and so on, until Christmas gift giving on Christmas Day now practically dominates Christmas tradition.