Why do we exchange gifts at Christmas?

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The exchanging of gifts is arguably one of the things most people look forward to most at Christmas. From the excitement of opening our own gift to seeing the joy on our loved ones faces when they unwrap theirs, there’s something almost magical about the feelings of love and warmth spread on the 25th of December.  

Gift giving has become one of the main traditions of Christmas celebrations across the globe, but while it may seem like a modern concept, people have been giving gifts for centuries. From the days of ancient Rome to the beginning of Christianity, the exchanging of presents has played a part in them all. So where did the idea truly begin and why have we continued to carry on the tradition in modern times?  

Where did it start? 

While Christmas is a Christian tradition, the exchanging of gifts is not exclusively linked to Christianity. Other religions also exchange gifts at the end of the year, such as the Jewish, with the holiday Hanukkah and the Hindu with their celebration, Pancha Ganapati. The practice of gift giving dates back as far as ancient Roman times, particularly the festival of Saturnalia, which took place between the 17th and 23rd of December.  

When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in AD 312, the pagan celebrations came to an end. However, it was anticipated that banning Saturnalia would result in a backlash, as it had become extremely popular. It’s thought that early religious leaders incorporated a number of traditions from the festival when Christmas was established to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The exchange of gifts is likely to be one of the conventions which remained.  

The old custom of giving gifts was rationalised into the Christian faith as it was associated with the gifts the three wise men gave to Jesus. It’s also likely that the life of Nikolaos of Myra, a fourth century saint, known for his love of giving people presents, had some influence. After being venerated as a saint, he was given the title ‘Saint Nicholas’ which we know today as the original name of Father Christmas or Santa.  

Christmas gift giving today 

Christmas tradition is the main reason we give gifts to our loved ones at the end of each year, however, there are several social, psychological, and emotional factors which play a part too. Giving gifts can help build new relationships or nourish existing ones. This is mainly down to the fact that a gift given is typically a reflection of both the giver and the receiver. Giving a gift to someone we care about is a simple way to show someone how much they mean to us.  

For those in romantic relationships, giving a gift is thought to symbolise the love and devotion we share with our partners. This fits well with the theory of “symbolic interactionism”, which suggests that people communicate through the use of symbols. An example of this is when men buy their partners flowers to symbolise feelings of love, admiration and beauty.    

We often feel pressure to find the perfect gift, but it can be tricky, even for those we know well. It’s natural to want to get it right, especially if the present is for someone you deeply care for, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by choice or indecision.  

Take some time to think about the person you’re buying a gift for. Consider their likes, dislikes, hobbies, lifestyle and how they spend their time. Is there something you could give them which connects to their hobbies? For example, if your girlfriend enjoys makeup, a wheelie case to store all her cosmetics and brushes would be a thoughtful gift. If you’re still drawing a blank, have a look online for Christmas gifts for women. Plenty of women’s magazines and online publications will cover this topic in detail, particularly as we approach the festive season.  

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