Unwrapping Wonder: The History of Christmas Gift Giving

If you’ve shopped at The Bradford Exchange before, you know the Christmas holiday season is important to us. For 50 years now we’ve strived to be your home for extraordinary gifts you won’t find anywhere else. The kind of Christmas gifts you never even knew existed. The kind of Christmas gifts that, when you see them, you’re just in awe. That’s what Unwrapping Wonder is all about.

But while we certainly love participating in the tradition of Christmas gift giving, we obviously didn’t invent this beloved practice. Yes, it was around so much longer than we have been. Did you ever wonder how much longer? Well, that’s what today’s post is all about.

We will be looking at the history behind the first Christmas gift and the evolution of this tradition through the years. So, as you anticipate all the marvelous things coming your way this holiday season and all the marvelous things you get to give to those you love, we invite you to enjoy Unwrapping Wonder: The History of Christmas Gift Giving.

What Was the Very First Christmas Gift?

In the Christian tradition, the visit of the Magi to the Baby Jesus marks the first historical instance of giving Christmas gifts. Often referred to as the “3 Wise Men” the Magi delivered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child. These were all very impressive gifts on a scale of monetary value. But the symbolism of the gifts, denoting nobility, divinity and sacrifice, holds an even greater value and resonance for those who practice the Christian faith.

While the gifts of the Magi are probably the most well know, the practice of giving gifts for Christmas pre-dates the biblical account by more than 100 years with the festival of Saturnalia – an occasion set aside by the ancient Romans to give thanks to the agricultural god Saturn. Originally established as just one day, the festival of Saturnalia was extended to a full week of festivities by around 133-131 B.C.

Saturnalia occurred between December 17-23 on the Julian calendar and the celebration including public sacrifices and other religious practices – to honor and appease Saturn and garner promise for future harvest. Other events included extensive feasting, intermingling of slaves and their masters, gambling, parades and processions, games, and an exchanging of gifts between family and friends. While not held on the exact day we celebrate Christmas, December 25, the similarities between the festivities and the timing are worth noting.

Even before Saturnalia, however, there are historical documentations of other cultures and regions of the world giving and receiving gifts during the time of winter solstice on December 21. Winter solstice astronomically marks the beginning of longer days and shorter nights and was often celebrated by the giving of gifts as a way for people to spread warmth and cheer during the cold winter months. Sounds a lot like Christmas, don’t you think?

The Evolution and Modernization of Gift Giving

So, from a celebration of the winter solstice, Saturnalia and the story of the “very first Christmas” how did the practice of giving gifts officially become aligned with the holiday? There are some key moments that got us to where we are today.

One of the first major events was the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in AD 312. This pretty much ended pagan celebrations in the Roman Empire, which upset a lot of people. But the religious rulers and Constantine were trying to be diplomatic, and some believe that, in fear of a backlash, he rebranded some things, so to speak.

Constantine took one of the biggest components of the pagan festival of Saturnalia – gift giving – and rationalized it into the narrative of the gifts of the Magi, effectively giving the practice a religious context and associating it with the story of Christmas. Pretty smart, right?

This practice caught on but wasn’t fully modernized until the reign of Queen Victoria in the United Kingdom. The Victorian Era (marking the Queen’s reign from 1837-1901) was highly influential on the way we currently practice the giving of Christmas gifts, particularly as it applies to sentimentality and consumerism. Here are a few of the factors that contributed to its evolution:

1. The Industrial Revolution – Queen Victoria’s reign coincided with the height of the Industrial Revolution, which saw monumental advancements in manufacturing and transportation. It only makes sense that greater mass production equates with a greater number of gift giving choices.

2. Consumer Culture and Department Stores – because of the immense output of the Industrial Revolution, there began to be more of an emphasis placed on buying things (gifts) and subsequently the exchange of things (gifts), which is the foundation of a modern consumer culture. This behavior shift only made gift giving flourish more.

Department stores built to house all these gifts experienced a boom during this period as well, with large shopping developments springing up in urban cities like London and New York. This provided a unique opportunity for people to shop for gifts for everyone on their Christmas list all in one place. Sounds a little like The Bradford Exchange, don’t you think!

3. Sentimentalism and Tradition – Queen Victoria put a great deal of emphasis on family and tradition during her time on the throne. In fact, if you look at all the seasonal traditions inspired by her and her husband Prince Albert (see a big one below), the holiday season was practically promoted as a family-centered event. This coupled with the fact that Victorians were known for their sentimentality made the giving of meaningful gifts a perfect way to bring the traditions of family and the expression of emotions together in special, annual ritual.

As a side note, one of the most beloved Christmas stories of all time: Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” was published in 1843. The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge finds a jaded and miserly man at the end of his years forever changed by the visit of 3 magical ghosts. The transformation that occurs in this cherished story is one that still generates a spirit of goodwill and glad tidings today.

4. Christmas Trees – if you needed one ideal location to display all the gifts for Christmas morning, what would you come up with? These days, we know the location of choice but until the practice of decorating Christmas trees became a thing, this wasn’t the most obvious answer. Prince Albert was the person who first introduced the practice of decorating Christmas trees to England. Christmas trees subsequently became a focal point for all of the gift giving that occurred on December 25.

The Art of Giving Christmas Gifts

The history of giving Christmas gifts is a fascinating evolution but the art of giving Christmas gifts is something we often find even more relevant. It’s the art and the planning and the strategies that we put into practice each holiday season as our gift lists come out and we start to create experiences of joy for all those we love.

Have you started your gift list for this year? Are you looking for ways to add more meaning and thoughtfulness to gifts for your family and friends? Our Gift Advisors strongly suggest shopping our extraordinary Christmas gifts while we’re at the height of our best selection. While Christmas shopping is something many of us wait on, there is such an advantage to shopping early. For one, it’s when all the best options are available! Plus, once you finish your shopping list, you can fully enjoy the most wonderful time of the year with no worries at all.

We hope you enjoyed our peek back at how Christmas gift-giving came to be. We also hope you now feel fully inspired by the approaching holiday season. Best wishes to you and your family this Christmas. And with so many unique items we offer, we trust that you will have a great time finishing up your list with us!

Unwrapping Wonder: The History of Christmas Gift Giving by
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The Gift Advisors @The Bradford Exchange are thrilled to help you discover a wealth of artistic treasures, all of which began with passion. Whether you are looking for that perfect personalized gift or a unique collection for yourself, we are driven to make your shopping experience as joyful as possible and hope you are surprised and delighted with what you find. Thank you for your continued support.

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