The tradition of Christmas gift-giving is shrouded in something of a mystery, although many believe the ritual to have descended from the "strenae" and "sigillaria" of the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival. Saturnalia (named for Saturn, the Roman God of Sowing) was observed from December 17th through December 25th. Ritualistic in nature, its purpose was to see out the old year and safeguard the health of the crops sown in Winter. For the populace, however, it was also a time of feasting and gift-giving. The citizens exchanged "strenae," boughs of laurel and evergreen which brought good luck, and the children received "sigillaria," small clay dolls which were purchased at a special fair held during the week of Saturnalia. Gifts of home-made pastries and sweets would be exchanged and those of higher rank might make presents of jewelry or pieces of gold and silver. In Frech Canada, this custom has been preserved.
Because Saturnalia took place at the Solstice, it was also known as the Festival of Lights. Many of the presents were gifts of candles which the people would burn throughout the Winter nights to summon the Sun back to life. These Roman traditions of feasting and gift-giving were, according to some sources, later absorbed into the Christian Christmas celebrations by virtue of the Apostles who brought the Gospel to Rome. Through the teaching of the Disciples, people learned of the Three Wise Men who traveled from the Orient bringing gifts to the newborn King. From that time on, the ancient custom became slightly altered. The exchanging of presents remained, but now it was in imitation of the gifts donated by the Magi to the Christ Child.
Later, it became customary to give gloves (or the money to purchase them). This was known as "glove money" and later extended to gifts of metal pins, which were introduced in the Sixteenth Century. Eventually "pin money" came to mean the small amounts of cash that women were allowed to spend in any manner they pleased during the centuries when they lacked economic rights. Sweet things have always been a traditional gift to ensure sweetness in the coming year, as are lamps which symbolize a wish for light and warmth, along with presents of money to represent the wish for increasing wealth. It is believed that the actual wrapping of gifts may have originated in Denmark.
Customs and dates for Christmas gift-giving vary greatly from country to country, as do the supposed donors of the gifts. Depending upon the place, the gifts are allegedly delivered by elves, angels, the Christ Child...even Jesus' camel... and are provided by an equally varied number of benefactors. In Brussels, it is the custom to give living gifts such as birds, pets or flowers and, in the West Indies, it is the custom to exchange or give hospitality, service or talent. Material gifts are not exchanged.
From ancient times, it has been believed that unlikely gift-givers would come out of hiding during Christmas...trolls, elves and goblins who were, at other times of the year, dangerous creatures from the "other world," but who could in their whimsical way be kind. In many countries, the person who brings the gifts at Christmas time comes at night. This person leaves the presents for children to find the next morning. However, in other countries, the bringer of gifts arrives during the day, often with an assistant who helps the benefactor to distribute the presents.
In Scandinavia, the "julnissen" and "jultomten" (elder hearth spirits of elfin origin who live in dark corners, in attics or stables, or under the stairs) emerge on Christmas Eve while the inhabitants of the house are sleeping, to feast on the porridge that the children have left out for them and to hide Christmas packages in unexpected places. In some areas of Sweden, Jultmoten the Gift-Bringer is a gnome whose sleigh is drawn by the Julbocker, goats which are the property of Thor, God of Thunder. Julmoten dresses in red and carries a bulging sack upon his back.
In Denmark, the gift-giver is Julemanden, who rides in a sleigh pulled by reindeer and carries a sack. Elves known as Juul Nisse are said to come down from the attic, where they live, in order to help Julemanden. Children place a saucer of milk or rice pudding out in the attic for these elves and hope to find it empty in the morning.
In Poland, the children's gifts are said to come from the stars while in Hungary, where children sometimes shine their shoes before placing them near the door on upon a windowsill as receptacles for the presents, they are believed to be brought to the little ones by angels.
In Syria, children's gifts are believed to come from the youngest camel and are given on January 6th, which is Three King's Day.
In Italy, the Crone of Befana (an old woman dressed all in black who rides a broomstick through the air) leaves trinkets for good children and coals for naughty ones. Befana's name is derived from the word "Epiphany" and it is on Epiphany Eve that Befana (like her ancestor, Berchta the Hearth Goddess) is abroad distributing her presents. In some areas, legend tells that La Befana refused to go to Bethlehem with the Wise Men when they passed her door because she had not finished her sweeping. Now, she goes from place to place, hoping that some day she will find the Christ Child. Everywhere she visits, she leaves a small gift.
In Germany, Switzerland and Austria, it is believed that an angel who is a herald from heaven visits homes every Christmas Eve riding a tiny deer laden with sweets and toys. Almost always portrayed as a pretty little creature, this gift-giver is named "Christkindl," or the Christ Child. In some areas of Germany today, children write letters to the Baby Jesus with their Christmas wishlist.
The bringer of presents to some locations in Russia is Kolyada, a white-robed elfin maiden who travels to homes by means of a sleigh. Every Christmas Eve, children in the Russian villages sing carols to honor Kolyada and she rewards them with treats. In other areas, the gift-giver is an ageless wanderer named Baboushaka. She is believed to have given wrong directions to the Magi and, on the eve of Three Kings Day, wanders from house to house peering into the faces of children and leaving gifts. Yet another Russian gift-giver is known as Grandfather Frost, who is featured in more detail in the "Santa Claus" section accessible from the main "Christmas" Page.
In Spain, Puerto Rico, Mexico and South America, children are given gifts on January 6th, which is also known as Three Kings Day. This is the feast of Epiphany when Christians celebrate the arrival in Bethlehem of the Magi. Shoes are put out on the windowsills of the houses to be filled by the Three Wise Men as they ride past. In Puerto Rico, children put greens and flowers in small boxes placed under their beds...gifts for the camels of the Three Kings.
The most easily-recognized and popular gift-giver is, of course, Saint Nicholas (known as Santa Claus or by a variety of other names). The details of this well-known benefactor are featured in a separate section accessible from the main "Christmas" Page