A short journey to discover one of the most characteristic traditions of Christmas: the exchange of gifts. You have to run up and down through time, from the Saturnalia of the ancient Romans to Santa Claus, via the gifts that the Three Kings brought to Jesus.
Why do we exchange gifts under the tree at Christmas? Have you ever wondered where this tradition came from? The answer must be sought far back in time. That of Christmas gifts, in fact, is a custom that has ancient roots. Over time, it has been transformed, crossing different cultures and religions, but it has kept its core intact. The same one that today leads us to scramble until the last moment to find the right gift with which to please someone we love.
The Sarturnals of the ancient Romans
Who knows if the ancient Romans felt the same hustle and bustle when the days of Saturnalia, among the most heartfelt holidays of the year, approached. The Saturnalia fell in the very second half of December, precisely from the 17th to the 24th (as established in the imperial age). At that time, the establishment of the temple of the god Saturn and the anniversary of the so-called Golden Age was celebrated. This was done with a week of festivities in grand style, involving the entire population, including slaves, who at least for a few days could behave as free men. There was no work, no fighting or war; everything was still and festive. Banquets followed one another and the exchange of small gifts, called just strennas, was also incessant. Among the most frequent gifts were the so-called Lari, that is, figurines depicting the deities of deceased ancestors, who were believed to watch over families. The similarities between Christmas and Saturnalia, however, do not stop at gifts. The ancient Romans, for example, also decorated houses and trees with colorful symbols on those festive days.
The gifts of the Magi in the Christian tradition
Theadvent of Christianity brought a transformation of pagan customs. The feast days remained, but their meaning was revisited, as were the cultural references. The days of Saturnalia became those on which Christmas, New Year's Day and Epiphany were chosen to be celebrated. And the gifts? They became symbolic of an episode recounted in the Gospel, namely thearrival of the Magi to honor the newborn Jesus. These three rulers who came from the east, according to the Gospel account, brought to the child of Bethlehem, gold, frankincense and myrrh. The identification between the Magi and gifts also explains why, in countries with a strong Catholic tradition, even until a few decades ago, the magical night when gifts were exchanged was not Christmas but Epiphany, Jan. 6.
The advent of Santa Claus
In most parts of the world, however, the tradition of Christmas gifts has undergone a further transformation. The figures of the Three Wise Men became intertwined with that of Bishop St. Nicholas, who lived in the fourth century and was in turn transfigured over time into what is now known as Santa Claus, or Santa Claus. According to tradition, St. Nicholas saved three girls from a grim future of exploitation by giving them a dowry that enabled them to marry. The dowry consisted of sacks of gold that he threw into their home through the window. Just as Santa Claus does with gifts for good children. Then, century after century, St. Nicholas lost his religious connotation to establish himself even in non-Catholic countries as an old man with a thick white beard, dressed in red and very generous. Today it is his turn to travel the planet in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, to continue to fuel the magic of Christmas.