Contrary to popular belief, Christmas presents, and celebrations altogether, existed long before the Victorian era. Gift-giving is a relic of a pagan custom, namely the winter solstice, which in the Northern Hemisphere occurs in December. It was celebrated in ancient Rome with the Saturnalia holiday (a December festival in honour of the god Saturn), which comprised a sacrifice and a public banquet followed by private gift-giving and continual partying. The presents exchanged were usually practical joke-type gifts or small figurines made of wax or pottery. As Christianity became increasingly widespread in Roman lands, the custom of gift-giving became tied to 25 December, the day of Jesus’s birth, and to the story of the three wise men bearing gifts. The tradition of gift-giving was further cemented through tales of Saint Nicholas, an early Christian bishop from the Greek city of Myra, whose legendary habit of secret gift-giving gave rise to the traditional model of Santa Claus.
Some early Christian rulers believed that it was their subjects who should give gifts to their superiors, and insisted on tributes and tithes during that period. This changed around the turn of the first millennium following the popularity of another historical gift-giver, Good King Wenceslas, who braved harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen. Christmas gift-giving to superiors became less common, and around the time of the Protestant Reformation, bestowing presents on children became increasingly widespread in Europe.
A number of midwinter or Christmas traditions in European folklore involve gift bringers, mainly the figure of a bearded old man, whom in Great Britain is now affectionately referred to as Father Christmas. In Slavic countries the figure is mostly called Father Frost. In Scandinavia, it is an elf-like figure who comes at Yule. In German-speaking Europe and in Latin Europe, the gift bringer became associated with the Saint Nicholas, who, among other incidents, presented three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. In some parts of central Europe, there is a tradition of a young child or fairy-like being, known as Christkindl, bringing presents.
During the Middle Ages, there was a period of celebration that stretched for 12 nights, from Christmas Eve to 6 January, hence The 12 Days of Christmas carol, which first appeared in print in 1780.
Then came the Victorians. The first known commercially produced Christmas card was designed by John Callcott Horsley of London in 1843. With cards and decorations, the Victorians instigated many of our current seasonal traditions. Gifts were usually limited to a single present, which was typically homemade. Among the affluent, manufactured wooden toys were gradually introduced.
By the end of the 19th century, Christmas Eve became the most common date for gift-giving in Western culture. To this day, the British royal family observes this tradition, laying out their presents on Christmas Eve and exchanging them at teatime.
It’s also well known among royal fans that the Windsor family usually focuses on inexpensive offerings for Christmas – in 2011, the Duchess of Cambridge made chutney for HM The Queen. All members of the royal household receive Christmas presents from The Queen, who personally hands out presents at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.
Continuing a tradition from her father, King George VI and her grandfather, George V, The Queen also gives Christmas puddings to her staff. About 1,500 Christmas puddings paid for by The Queen (through the Privy Purse) are distributed, and each pudding is accompanied by a greeting card from The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. The Queen also gives Christmas trees each year to Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, St Giles’s Cathedral and Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh.
Today, of course, Christmas has become a highly commercialised celebration. In 2017, British families spent almost as much on Christmas as they did on holidays. Londoners are the country’s biggest spenders, with an average Christmas budget of £1,302 – half of which is spent on presents. In 2016, 70 per cent of respondents to an online survey of 13,576 people in 14 countries said that too much attention is put on spending during the Christmas period; 42 per cent said they felt forced to spend more at Christmas; and 10 per cent borrowed money to be able to afford the gifts.
In 2018, however, gift-giving seems to have returned to some of the Victorian values. Many consumers are turning to personalised presents. “The demand for unique gifts is definitely growing,” says Louis Porter, co-founder of The Handmade Christmas Co., which creates more than 100,000 hand-finished products each year. “Not only are personalised presents crafted especially for the recipient, but they become keepsakes. In the case of our Christmas gift sacks and stockings, they become an integral part of a family’s Christmas tradition.”
Before the tree...
Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, is usually credited with having introduced the Christmas tree to England in 1840. However, the honour of establishing this tradition in the United Kingdom rightfully belongs to Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, who set up the first known English tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December, 1800. The later enthusiasm of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for the custom helped spread Christmas tree popularity throughout the country, including the tradition of laying presents underneath it.
Prior to the tree, children would wait for Saint Nicholas to come and put a present under their pillow, provided that they had been good during the year. Those who had behaved badly could expect to find a twig or a piece of coal. In the Netherlands, children put out a clog filled with hay and a carrot for Saint Nicholas’s horse. In other countries, children left shoes or boots by the fireplace on Saint Nicholas Eve in the hope of receiving coins and sweets. These traditions have subsequently combined to create today’s Christmas stocking.