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The history of Christmas gifts

by Andira Vitale

It’s nice to receive gifts from loved ones at Christmas! But giving is better! Because the expression of happiness on the faces turns into the most beautiful gifts we receive. So, what is the origin of the Christmas gift that multiplies happiness when shared? When and where did this tradition originate?

Goddess Strenia

The origin of the custom of exchanging Christmas gifts coincides with the birth of the term ‘Strenne’, according to studies claiming that the history of Christmas gifts dates back to ancient Rome. Strenae in Latin means New Year’s party. Strenia, or Strenua, was the Roman religious goddess. It represented the new year, prosperity, strength, health and good luck. During the Latin holidays (17-23 December during the reign of Domitian), according to the tradition of the strena, they wished each other good wishes and the winter solstice was celebrated with food symbolising abundance. Subsequently, this date was changed to January 1st…

Philosopher, theologian and bishop St. Augustine says Strenia is a goddess who makes a person “strong, strong”. Andrea Bacci, the Renaissance writer, writes that Strenia in the Sabine language means ‘health’. Johannes Lydus writes that Strenae is a Sabine word for well-being or prosperity. In Rome, an altar and a sacred tree are dedicated to the goddess Strenia on the Via Sacra.

Santa verbena

Antiquity scholar traveller Jacob Spon (1647-1685), in his book “On the Origin of Gifts”, argues that giving gifts began in the early Roman Empire. At that time, the sacred branches of verbena collected from the woods of the goddess Strenia, a symbol of health, were sent as a Christmas gift to the king and the paramount rulers of the kingdom. Over time, this has turned into a tradition. The Romans exchanged these fertile and blessed branches on January 1 to wish for prosperity and abundance. Herbal tea is made and drunk from these branches to bring health and strength.

Persimmon with fig honey

In the future, it has become a custom to give figs, honey or dates along with the enamelled branches in the new year. The Romans believed that if they started the New Year with dessert, they would have a sweet and fruitful year. They also sent sweet treats to kings and dignitaries, wishing the whole year was lovely and peaceful.

Gifts that turn into gold

During the Roman kingdom’s imperial period, the gift’s purpose and content changed. The noble class and elite began to prefer gifts that resonated with gold instead of the traditional honey pots inherited from their ancestors. But when the Roman church dominated the West and the East, this tradition was banned to destroy everything that belonged to the polytheistic period. However, it cannot be eliminated.

Birth of Christ

On the contrary, the exchange of Christmas gifts began in the modern Christian era in connection with the birth of Christ. The ancient Church did not celebrate Christmas before the birth of Jesus, and “Christmas” did not exist strictly as a holy day. The history of Christmas gifts is linked to the birth of Christ, but above all to the gifts made to the child Jesus by the Magi: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, gifts were given to children to remember the birth of Jesus as a moment of joy.

In later periods, gifts continued with Christmas and Santa Claus concepts in the 1800s. Word has spread that Santa brings gifts to children every New Year. And the idea of gifts began to take its place in the world. Today, it has become a symbol that expresses sharing on special days, anniversaries and celebrations …

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