This week, as we creep closer to the 25th of December, we’re
running a daily excerpt from Jason Boyett’s article “Stealing
Christmas” (which appeared in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of RELEVANT).
In it, Jason takes on some of the traditions we associate with the
birth of our Savior and finds that some of them didn’t start out so
“Christian.” So, since we live in a culture that often defines this time of
year by a “War on Christmas” or a “War Defending Christmas,” we thought
it would be fun (and informative) to look at where some of our most
beloved traditions really come from. So far, we’ve tackled the Christmas tree and mistletoe; check back each day to find out
more ways we’ve “stolen Christmas.”
The gifts. This one’s a no-brainer, right? Don’t we give each other gifts on Christmas (and on our birthdays) because the wise men gave Jesus gifts on His birthday?
Not so fast. Yes, the wise men gave gifts to Jesus. But if you’ll read Matthew’s Gospel carefully—instead of, say, getting your history from nativity scenes—you’ll notice the wise men didn’t actually show up at the manger. At all. According to Matthew 2:16, they arrived two years after Christ’s birth. So those weren’t exactly birthday gifts. It’s more likely they were traditional and symbolic gifts reserved for a king.
Unless you only give Christmas presents to royalty, your holiday gift-giving owes less to the wise Magi and more to Saturnalia, the aforementioned Roman winter solstice feast. Its celebrants would exchange small gifts with each other according to socioeconomic status. The rich gave jewelry or gold coins. The poor gave homemade edibles. Children would give and receive little clay dolls. And everyone gave “strenae,” evergreen boughs thought to bring good luck.
But, hark! Gift-giving isn’t completely pagan. It does have a legitimate—but probably legendary—connection to Christianity, thanks to St. Nicholas. Yes, that St. Nicholas. The kindly fourth-century bishop of Myra used his family’s affluence to give anonymous gifts to the poor (including once dropping a bag of gold down a family’s chimney). After he died of old age, admiring townsfolk continued his habit of secret gift-giving, with credit going to jolly old St. Nick.
Giving gifts to the poor in honor of Jesus? For something rooted in paganism, it fits pretty nicely into a Christian framework.