It is traditional to offer a Christmas gift for the Christmas holiday, usually to children and the immediate family. These gifts are offered according to tradition, the evening of December 24 and follows the opening of gifts at midnight.
This tradition of giving gifts for Christmas or New Year started in the seventeenth century in the Christian world, gifts are essentially reserved for children of notables and kings at that time. However, it was more common to offer gifts in the first days of the new year to the children of bourgeois and aristocratic families, the transfer of this practice from early January to 25 December asserting during the nineteenth century with the transformation of the Christmas family celebration. This custom gifts is largely taken outside any religious context.
Today the commercial reality has transformed the Christmas presents in major economic basis of trade during the two months before Christmas.
Justification of gifts
The exchange of gifts reproduces the presentation of the offerings of the shepherds and the Magi to the infant Jesus. In a more theological reading, they remind to Christians that during Christmas, “God has given himself to us.”
The secularization of society did not reduce the interest in the exchange of gifts. For the anthropologist Gerald Berthoud,
“The Christmas period, very busy ceremonially, has some ritual intensity. While we basically live in a market society, there is in this exchange of gifts something of the order of the gift and that is universal in principle: it creates, maintains and strengthens links; it constitutes a kind of social matrix.”
Christmas gifts are usually wrapped in shiny wrapping or brightly colored paper, often surrounded by a tape also colored. They are offered at varying times in different countries, mainly at Christmas, New Year or the Saint-Nicolas.
The parents make young children believe that the gifts are brought by an external character, mainly Santa, a fictional character popularized under this name in the United States.
Some traditions emphasize the notion of reward: gift giving would be subject to the requirement for the child to have been good in the past year.
On Christmas Eve, the children place a shoe or pair of shoes under the tree. The gift was usually food (apple, orange, sugar pipe) before the appearance of the consumer society and the department stores in the nineteenth century. In Catholic families, gifts are brought by the Infant Jesus. But since the twentieth century in the majority of homes and appropriation of American custom, to the children was told the legend that is Santa Claus who delivers gifts; it passes through the chimney and leaves gifts that are asked where are the shoes of the inhabitants of the house while they sleep (in France). This delivery would take place the night before Christmas Day after Christmas Eve. It is advised to write a letter to Santa to tell him the wishes before Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, children hang stockings on the edge of the chimney (often fake socks, red and very large). Santa Claus (Father Christmas) is in charge of distributing the gifts on Christmas night. Often children write him a letter detailing the gifts they want.
Gifts are distributed on January 6, feast of the Epiphany, in memory of these facts by the Magi to the Child Jesus.
The children receive small gifts especially from St. Lucia, December 13. In the city of Trieste Saint Nicolas is offering them gifts on December 6. These are small toys or candy, nothing more. On Christmas Day, the Santa (Babbo Natale) is passing at each home with rich gifts. It ends with the fairy Befana (deformation word from “Epiphany“) which distributes on January 6 candy to good children and coal to those who have not been.
It is on December 6 that St. Nicolas brings sweets, apples, tangerines and nuts to children. Normally saint Nicolas puts sweets into boots or socks that children put at the door of their home. This tradition is alive also in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, in the North of France and Lorraine. He rewards the children, but is sometimes accompanied by a frightening character (eg. The Bogeyman (Hans Trapp), in Alsace, responsible for punishing children who have not been wise). Saint Nicolas has a gold book in which are recorded all the little sins, but also the children of the virtues. Saint Nicolas is sometimes helped by Knecht Ruprecht, which even replaces him in the Protestant country (which does not recognize the saints!). Sometimes (in Saxony) Knecht Ruprecht is responsible for punishing children.
On the evening of December 24th when the children have for the first time the right to admire the decorated tree, they see the gifts on the foot of this tree. These gifts were made surreptitiously by the Christkind (the Baby Jesus). Before being allowed to open the packages, the family sang Stille Nacht, Alle Jahre wieder or other Christmas carols. In many homes, a family member reads from the Bible the story of Jesus’ birth. On the evening of 24, often around midnight, Catholics go to Christmette (Christmas mass). At the end of the Christmette, it is turned off all the lights in the church, except the candles including the candles on the Christmas tree, and everyone sang Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.
Country of Orthodox tradition
In Greece, gifts are exchanged on January 1 in memory of Bishop Basil of Caesarea, celebrated that day.
In the former countries of Eastern orthodox communist government (including Russia and Ukraine), Father Christmas has replaced Father Frost, and gifts are exchanged on the occasion of New Year.
In Quebec, the Christmas gifts are usually placed under a Christmas tree that is placed in the living room. Some people prefer to choose a real (natural) tree, while others use an artificial tree (reusable from year to year). Families gradually place their Christmas gifts under the tree, throughout the month of December, in foresight of the opening thereof with family on December 24 in the evening or the morning of December 25. These gifts are usually purchased few days before from the store or online, then they are covered with wrapping paper before being placed under the tree.
The North American tradition of Santa Claus is widely used. This is then called Papá Noel in Spanish or Papai Noel (in Portuguese, in Brazil).
A current trend in many Latin American countries, in Venezuela for example, says that Santa makes the toys and then he gives them to the Child Jesus (el Niño Dios) to distribute them in homes. This story is an attempt to reconcile the two traditions (Catholic and secular) in a world where the iconography of Santa Claus is omnipresent.
The tradition of giving gifts for Christmas is present in various countries, especially in those who have adopted western customs (Japan, South Korea) or countries where there are significant Christian communities (Philippines, East Timor).
Social and economic impacts
Christmas becomes a consumerist celebration with the advent of department stores in the mid nineteenth century. They combine fixed and displayed prices, marginally offset by a significant volume of business and an offer that is renewed regularly, especially at Christmas.
The most toys are sold during Christmas.