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The Christmas traditions of gifting: from the Romans to Father Christmas

There are many stories behind the custom of exchanging gifts at Christmas, but not many people know it started with the Romans…

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As Christmas approaches, it’s a time when we start thinking about spending time with family, huge turkey dinners and those all-important Christmas gifts.

It’s commonly believed that the tradition of gift giving started from the Bible story of the three wise men bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. While this has undoubtedly influenced the gift-giving tradition we experience at Christmastime nowadays, the roots of giving gifts in winter actually go back much further.

Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival that started on 17 December every year, to honour the god, Saturn. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture, so people worshipped him at this time of year to help the sun return in the New Year, ensuring their harvests would grow. After a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, the festivities that followed included banquets, parties and gift giving. During this time, the courts were closed, many crimes were not punishable and even gambling was permitted – against usual Roman protocol. The festivities – and lawlessness – lasted for a week in total until 23 December.

Treat your loved one to a gift voucher from The Runnymede on Thames this Christmas.

Gift giving during Saturnalia was done because the Romans believed it would bring them good fortune during the year ahead. Gifts exchanged included candles, fruit and small dolls made from dough for children. Interestingly, the Romans used to tie up their gifts with sprigs of holly, which signified the passing of the winter equinox. Holly is another Christmas tradition many people think comes from the Bible, signifying the crown of thorns Jesus wore when he was crucified. But as we can see, the holly tradition is even older than this.

As Christianity came in, the December tradition of gift giving faded for a while, as Christians didn’t like the Pagan association it had. However, in the 1800s, Queen Victoria started her own ritual of giving gifts to celebrate the New Year. At around the same time, Christians started to associate the gifts of the wise men with gift giving at Christmas. And so, the gift-giving custom we know at Christmas today was established.

Another fun side of gift giving today is the mythical winter gift bringer, known most commonly in the UK as Father Christmas, Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas. The original Saint Nicholas was a fourth century Greek bishop who became famous for giving generous gifts to the poor. During the Middle Ages, ‘Saint Nick’ was celebrated on his name day of 6 December, where children were given gifts in his honour. It was the Professor of Theology, Martin Luther, who made the suggestion to give gifts to children later in the month at Christmas instead, so the focus was on Christ rather than on glorifying saints.

Father Christmas himself is first seen in drawings in the 16th century, wearing red or green robes lined with fur. He was said to represent the spirit of good cheer at Christmas. Across the world nowadays, he’s known as everything from Father Frost and Papá Noel to Grandpa Frost and Christmas Gnome.

With everyone from the Romans to Father Christmas involved, giving gifts at Christmas is part of our heritage that isn’t going anywhere. Treat the special people in your life to gift voucher experiences at The Runnymede on Thames this Christmas. Gift vouchers can be used for everything on-site, including our luxurious rooms, riverside restaurants, afternoon tea and in our award-winning spa.

Treat your loved one to a gift voucher this Christmas

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