Giving gifts has been a tradition among human beings since ancient times. Many historians believe that this practice led to the development of the barter system, which was the economic basis for many societies. Land that was passed from one generation to another was considered a gift, as well as offerings made to various gods. The Romans and Greeks considered any beneficial occurrences were “gifts for the gods” while the leaders of different countries that were part of the Roman Empire sent “gifts” or “tributes” regularly to the emperor in Rome.
Many ancient peoples often exchanged gifts during different festival days throughout the year. The Romans exchanged gifts on New Year’s Day in celebration of the winter solstice. Some of these gifts included coins to represent prosperity, pastries to represent happiness, and lamps to provide light on one’s journey through life.
The idea that gift giving and love are closely associated developed alongside the growth of the Christian religion. The main theological basis of this religion is based on the fact that God himself gave humanity “His only begotten Son”, Jesus Christ, who was a “gift” to mankind. At the time of the Crucifixion, Jesus is said to have died “for our sins” because of the love that he felt for all humanity, his “gift” being his own life which was given to aid mankind on the path to salvation.
Even at the time of His birth, Jesus Christ was associated with gift giving. When He was born, the three Wise Men brought gifts to the newborn babe to honor Him. These gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh, gifts that would normally have been given to a king. Frankincense was a base element used to make fragrances and perfumes, myrrh was used in anointing oils, and gold was as valuable then as it is today. These items may also have had a symbolic meaning-frankincense was associated with the priest hood, gold was the symbol of earthly kings, and myrrh was a symbol of death, as this incense was often burned at funerals. The idea of giving gifts to newborns may have started with this Bible story, as well as the giving of gifts at Christmas.
The idea of gifts at Christmas developed differently as Christianity spread into various countries. In England, Father Christmas was responsible for delivering the gifts, while in France this was the work of Pere Noel. In Italy, it was Babbo Natale who acted as what we would refer to as Santa Claus, although the gift giver was another character named La Befana. The belief was that La Befana became lost on her way to deliver gifts to the Christ child and began delivering gifts to all youngsters. The American version of Santa Claus was developed in the 1880s by cartoonist Thomas Nash and has become a recognizable symbol of gift giving worldwide.
Today, while gifts are given for a variety of holidays and special occasions, the largest of these gift- giving occasions is and will probably remain to be the Christmas holiday. After all, as far as Christians are concerned, this holiday was the time that the people of the world received the greatest “gift” of love-Jesus Christ.