The tradition of gift-giving is an old one, but it became associated with Christmas more recently. It is a relic of a pagan custom, namely, the winter solstice which in Europe occurs in December. This was celebrated in ancient Rome with gift-giving during the Saturnalia holiday, which took place that month. As Christianity became increasingly widespread in the Roman lands, the custom of gift-giving continued. Around the year 336 AD the date of December 25 appears to have become established as the day of Jesus's birth, and the tradition of gift-giving was reinterpreted and tied to the story of three Magi giving gifts to baby Jesus; together with another story, that of Santa Claus based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop and gift-giver, it slowly became a part of Christmas celebrations.
Some early Christian rulers, however, interpreted this story as indications that it should be 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 millennium following the popularity of the Good King Wenceslas story based on the life of another historical person claimed to be a gift-giver, Saint Wenceslaus. Christmas gift-giving to superiors became less common, and around the time of the Protestant Reformation, customs of gift-giving to children became increasingly widespread in Europe. The custom spread to the United States around the 19th century. This also coincided with the desire of some elites to reduce the rowdiness of adult Christmas celebrations, which in some places were tied to begging, as "bands of young men, often rowdy, would "wassail" from home to home and demand handouts from the gentry". Another related aspect was the growing desire by parents to keep children at home, away from the "corrupting" influence of the urban streets.
Another relatively recent change concerned the time of Christmas gift-giving. For many centuries, gift-giving took place on December 6 around Saint Nicholas Day or in early January after New Year's Eve. The popularity of this custom grew after the positive reception of the 1823 poem The Night Before Christmas and the 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. By the end of the 19th century, Christmas Eve replaced early December or January dates as the most common date for gift-giving in the Western culture. It is custom for one to open a single gift on the evening of Christmas Eve.
The tradition was also embraced by retailers, for whom the weeks and, eventually, the entire month before Christmas became a very profitable period. Around the turn of the 20th century retailers started directing marketing efforts at children in the hopes that they would entice the parents to buy more goods.
In the early 2000s it was estimated that shoppers in the U.S. alone spend over $4 billion each day during the Christmas shopping season, with an average individual spending over $1,000 on gifts.
There are concerns that gift-giving during Christmas is too commercial. Seventy percent of respondents to an online survey of 13,576 people in 14 European countries in 2016 said that too much attention is put on spending during the Christmas period, 42% said they felt forced to spend more at Christmas, and 10% borrowed money to be able to afford the gifts.
Economist Joel Waldfogel noted that because of the mismatch between what the giftee values the gift and the value paid for by the giver, the gifts lose between 10% to one-third of their value; he calls it the "deadweight loss of Christmas". This leads to gifts often being returned, sold, or re-gifted. In the 2016 European online survey, 15% of respondents were unhappy about their gifts and 10% could not remember what they had received. Twenty-five percent of respondents said they had re-gifted their presents to someone else, 14% sold the items, 10% tried to return them to the store, and 5% returned the gift to the giver. Seniors were more likely to send their unwanted presents to charity, while those aged 25 to 34 "simply threw them away". Gifts that are least likely to be appreciated rely on personal tastes, and include items like perfumes and cosmetics, ornaments, and clothing.
- William Waits (October 1994). The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving. NYU Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-9284-1.
- Joel Waldfogel, The Deadweight Loss of Christmas
- Berking, Helmuth (March 30, 1999). Sociology of Giving. SAGE Publications. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-85702-613-2.
- Collins, Ace (April 20, 2010). Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas. Zondervan. pp. 96–100. Retrieved April 10, 2012.
- Ringel, Paul. "Why Do Children Get Presents on Christmas Anyway?". The Atlantic. Retrieved December 4, 2017.
- "Christmas: How did gift-giving and caroling get started?". Christian Science Monitor. December 21, 2013. ISSN 0882-7729. Retrieved December 4, 2017.
- ING.com (December 1, 2016). "The truth about unwanted Christmas gifts". ING.com. Retrieved December 1, 2017.
- "The economic case against Christmas presents". Vox. Retrieved 2017-12-05.
Media related to Christmas gifts at Wikimedia Commons