We have come across presents of various kinds at the pre- Christmas festivals; now that we have reached Christmastide itself we may dwell a little upon the festival as the great present-giving season of the year, and try to get at the origins of the custom.
The Roman strenae offered to the Emperor or exchanged between private citizens at the January Kalends have already been noted. According to tradition they were originally merely branches plucked from the grove of the goddess Strenia, and the purpose of these may well have been akin to that of the greenery used for decorations, viz., to secure contact with a vegetation-spirit. In the time of the Empire, however, the strenae were of a more attractive character, "men gave honeyed things, that the year of the recipient might be full of sweetness, lamps that it might be full of light, copper and silver and gold that wealth might flow in amain [exceedingly]." Such presents were obviously a kind of charm for the New Year, based on the principle that as the beginning was, so would the rest of the year be.
With the adoption of the Roman New Year's Day its present-giving customs appear to have spread far and wide. In France, where the Latin spirit is still strong, January 1 is even now the great day for presents, and they are actually called etrennes, a name obviously derived from strenae. In Paris boxes of sweets are then given by bachelors to friends who have entertained them at their houses during the year - a survival perhaps of the "honeyed things" given in Roman times.
In many countries, however, present-giving is attached to the ecclesiastical festival of Christmas. This is doubtless largely due to attraction from the Roman New Year's Day to the feast hallowed by the Church, but readers of the foregoing pages will have seen that Christmas has also drawn to itself many practices of a November festival, and it is probable that German Christmas presents, at least, are connected as much with the apples and nuts of St. Martin and St. Nicholas as with the Roman strenae. It has already been pointed out that the German St. Nicholas as present-giver appears to be a duplicate of St. Martin, and that St. Nicholas himself has often wandered from his own day to Christmas, or has been replaced by the Christ Child. We have also noted the rod associated with the two saints, and seen reason for thinking that its original purpose was not disciplinary but health- giving.
It is interesting to find that while, if we may trust tradition, the Roman strenae were originally twigs, Christmas gifts in sixteenth-century Germany showed a connection with the twigs or rods of St. Martin and St. Nicholas. The presents were tied together in a bundle, and a twig was added to them. This was regarded by the pedagogic mind of the period not as a lucky twig but as a rod in the sinister sense. In some Protestant sermons of the latter half of the century there are curious detailed references to Christmas presents. These are supposed to be brought to children by the Savior Himself, strangely called the Haus-Christ. Among the gifts mentioned as contained in the "Christ-bundles" are pleasant things like money, sugar-plums, cakes, apples, nuts, dolls; useful things like clothes; and also things "that belong to teaching, obedience, chastisement, and discipline, as A.B.C. tablets, Bibles and handsome books, writing materials, paper, &c., and the `Christ-rod.'"
A common gift to German children at Christmas or the New Year was an apple with a coin in it; the coin may conceivably be a Roman survival, while the apple may be connected with those brought by St. Nicholas.
The Christ Child is still supposed to bring presents in Germany; in France, too, it is sometimes le petit Jesus who bears the welcome gifts. In Italy we shall find that the great time for children's presents is Epiphany Eve, when the Befana comes, though in the northern provinces Santa Lucia is sometimes a gift-bringer. In Sicily the days for gifts and the supposed bringers vary; sometimes, as we have already seen, it is the dead who bring them, on All Souls' Eve; sometimes it is la Vecchia di Natali - the Christmas old woman - who comes with them on Christmas Eve; sometimes they are brought by the old woman Strina - note the derivation from strenae - at the New Year; sometimes by the Befana at the Epiphany.
A curious mode of giving presents on Christmas Eve belongs particularly to Sweden, though it is also found - perhaps borrowed - in Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and other parts of Germany. The so-called Julklapp is a gift wrapped up in innumerable coverings. The person who brings it raps noisily at the door, and throws or pushes the Julklapp into the room. It is essential that he should arrive quite unexpectedly, and come and go like lightning without revealing his identity. Great efforts are made to conceal the gift so that the recipient after much trouble in undoing the covering may have to search and search again to find it. Sometimes in Sweden a thin gold ring is hidden away in a great heavy box, or a little gold heart is put in a Christmas cake. Occasionally a man contrives to hide in the Julklapp and thus offer himself as a Christmas present to the lady whom he loves. The gift is often accompanied by some satirical rhyme, or takes a form intended to tease the recipient.
Another custom, sometimes found in "better-class" Swedish households, is for the Christmas presents to be given by two masked figures, an old man and an old woman. The old man holds a bell in his hand and rings it, the old woman carries a basket full of sealed packets, which she delivers to the addressees.
There is nothing specially interesting in modern English modes of present-giving. We may, however, perhaps see in the custom of Christmas boxes [gifts to tradesmen], inexorably demanded and not always willingly bestowed, a degeneration of what was once friendly entertainment given in return for the good wishes and the luck brought by wassailers [those going from house to house drinking the health of the occupants]. Instances of gifts to calling neighbors have already come before our notice at several pre-Christmas festivals, notably All Souls', St. Clement's, and St. Thomas's. As for the name "Christmas box," it would seem to have come from the receptacles used for the gifts. According to one account apprentices, journeymen, and servants used to carry about earthen boxes with a slit in them, and when the time for collecting was over, broke them to obtain the contents.
The Christmas card, a sort of attenuated present, seems to be of quite modern origin. It is apparently a descendant of the "school pieces" or "Christmas pieces" popular in England in the first half of the nineteenth century - sheets of writing-paper with designs in pen and ink or copper-plate headings. The first Christmas card proper appears to have been issued in 1846, but it was not till about 1862 that the custom of card-sending obtained any foothold.
Excerpted from Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, by Clement A. Miles, London: T. Fisher Unwin, 2nd Ed. 1913, pp. 263-279
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