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By Morella Devost
How did Christmas become the gift-giving holiday? To the chagrin of those for whom this holiday is a sacred religious festivity, the reality is that for the majority of people, Christmas is all about gifts, parties, and food.
The origins of this tradition can be traced back to Roman times. In the Roman Empire, December 25th was the date of observance of Sol Invictus (the rebirth of the “unconquered sun”). It was essentially a celebration of the sun returning after the winter solstice. This holiday also coincided with Saturnalia, the festival of Saturn, the god of wealth and plenty. Saturnalia was possibly the most popular of the Roman festivities and it was celebrated with many days of feasts and gift-giving.
But in the fourth century AD, Emperor Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the empire, and he wanted to shift away from these pagan celebrations. December 25th was chosen as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus in most parts of the empire, while the Eastern Roman Empire chose to celebrate January 6th. This date is still observed as Epiphany in Christianity, marking the arrival of the three wise men to the site of Jesus’ birth. In fact, some people attribute Christmas gift-giving to an emulation of the offerings of the Magi.
Then there’s the lore of Saint Nicholas of Myra, an early Christian bishop who lived during Emperor Constantine’s rule. He had a reputation for generosity and is said to have given away his parents’ fortune to the poor. Folklore said he frequently deposited coins and food in the shoes of those who left them out for him. In some parts of Europe, St. Nicholas Day is still celebrated on December 6th when children set their shoes out for “St. Nick” to leave a gift. This St. Nick is our Santa of today, but when or why he started riding a reindeer-pulled sleigh, wearing a red suit, or sliding down your chimney chute is less clear.
So we can thank the Romans and Nicholas of Myra for our deeply embedded gift-giving tradition. What we may be less grateful for is the huge stress many people end up feeling because of it. When we think of the spirit of Christmas, we like to picture joyous giving — not two mothers pulling at each other’s hair and yelling expletives in a toy store aisle, fighting over the last unit of the highly desired doo-dad because their precious child simply must have one.
What people are willing to put themselves through in the name of Christmas presents can be totally bonkers! From shopping at 3:00 am to get the first Black Friday deals to doing last-minute gift-runs on Christmas Day, this mad rush for gifts can last at least a month nationwide. And if your budget is tight, just the sniff of Christmas cookies can give you high blood pressure.
Many folks would agree that Christmas shopping can be very stressful. Why? What is the fear underneath the Christmas-shopping stress?
For one, we might be afraid of putting a big dent in our budget. (In fact, I suspect many people put all of Christmas on their credit cards and then pay the price for months to come.) Additionally, I believe many people experience a subtle anxiety in gift-giving: What if they don’t like it? What if it’s not enough? What if it’s too much?
We fret that they won’t like it. We fret over the bills to come. We fret at how much we have to do… so many gifts to buy, wrapping to do, cookies to bake, parties to go to. And as the holiday season progresses, you encounter — and perhaps draw inspiration from — the different types of gift-givers…
The Natural Gift-Giver
Some people are naturally talented at finding the perfect gift. You know them. Perhaps you’re one of them? These are the people who seem to nail gift-giving at every occasion. It’s like a superpower.
I suspect natural gift-givers are really good at it because they spend some time thinking about the person for whom they’re shopping. They consider the other person’s interests and likes, and then peruse for the perfect gift. They stand in contrast with the tchotchke-giver.
I’m sure you’ve been a victim of a tchotchke-giver. This is the person who buys a generic gift that could be given to anyone (and probably nobody likes). I confess I’ve been a tchotchke-giver once or twice. It can often happen when you feel obligated to bring a gift, but you either have no idea what to get or have no time to give it thought. So you get something. The tchotchke-giver is usually feeds the regifter.
Some people are skilled regifters, and others just unload their tchotchkes on you. They have a closet full of the objects they’ve received and don’t like, and they pull one out to re-wrap and pass on. I wonder if they keep track of who gave them what so that they don’t inadvertently give it to the original gifter?
Some people frown on regifting, but I think it’s perfectly acceptable as long as the gift is not a tchotchke you just want to get rid of. I once regifted a very expensive wedding present I received. We were never going to use it or display it, but it fit the style of the items on the new bride and groom’s registry. Voilà!
The Homemade Gifter
Some people love homemades and others hate them. I believe it’s all in the skill of the crafter. Nobody wants a gift that looks like your five-year-old kid made it. It’ll likely go in the tchotchke box, unless it was your five-year-old who gifted it to you. In which case, it will likely go on display for a few months and then probably end up in the tchotchke box.
I’ve gotten some extraordinary homemade gifts from one of my sisters. She’s made me scarves, hand-warmers, and shopping bags, and I use them all the time. I’m also one to enjoy homemade preserves and pickled foods. And I’ve personally been one to give homemade body butter and body scrub a couple of years, when my budget was tight.
The Yankee Swapper
This is my favorite! For a few years, my ex-husband and I hosted an annual Yankee Swap. The rules were simple: 1) $15-$20 budget; 2) homemade gifts allowed; and 3) funny is best. Our Yankee Swap quickly became the holiday party nobody wanted to miss. It was so fun!
In the end, whether or not we appreciate the Romans for getting us started, we should remind ourselves to keep the spirit of giving and lose the stress. Here are three practices that might help: 1) sticking to a total gift-giving budget, 2) giving each gift some thought, rather than rushing to TJ Maxx on Christmas Eve, and 3) tuning into our love for the other person. In that sense, some of the best gifts can be really simple because they carry the true spirit and generosity of giving.
Morella Devost helps people turn their pain and challenges into their greatest source of strength. After receiving two masters degrees in counseling from Columbia University, she became a Clinical Hypnotherapist, NLP facilitator, and Reiki Master. Morella is a Venezuelan-Vermonter who works with people all over the world from her RV-office as she travels the US with her family. She is the host of the Thrive With Morella TV-radio-podcast show.
Facebook personal: @Morellad1