One of the most well-known and religiously kept traditions of the Christmas season is the giving of gifts. But when did this practice start and what prompted it? Is it really something worth doing or is its background call for us to stop practicing it all together?
The most popular notion is that the tradition started as a commemoration of the three gifts that the Magi brought to the baby Jesus after He was born. December 25 being simply a commemoration (as Jesus was not born in December but most popularly speculated in August), this sounds like a plausible origin, but it isn’t.
Gift-giving started long before Christmas was set as a day to remember Christ’s birth. While Christmas became a tradition in the fourth century, gift-giving during holidays is of Roman origin. It was part of a celebration offered to the Roman god Saturn who was viewed to be the god of agriculture who gave vegetation and fruitfulness all year round.
The celebration lasted for seven days through the 17th to the 23rd of December. The gift giving ceremonies were seen as a way of gaining fortune for the next year. People initially gave simple gifts like candles, cheap wines, fruits, nuts and the like.
This celebration went on until the fourth century, which was also the time that Christmas started taking over as the highlight of the season. Many Christians have found it quite disturbing, given that the origins of the tradition are pagan in nature, and choose not to celebrate by giving gifts.
This has been an issue of concern for thousands of years. Paul once addressed it in a letter to the Romans. “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” (Romans 13:1-2)
As God has declared everything clean and lifted the command for the exclusion of practices between His people and others, we are given the liberty to celebrate things of pagan origins because Jesus has regained authority over all the world (Matthew 28:18).
But Paul does warn against the blatant practice of pagan traditions to the point of going back to its core meaning, which is not what we want to do.
On the topic of giving gifts on Christmas, for instance, or celebrating Christmas at all, no one has to refrain from the tradition if he or she doesn’t want to as long as we celebrate it in the way Christ has regained it as a celebration. Christmas is a time to remember Jesus and to celebrate God-given family and relationships. It’s not a time for fortune, selfishness and gluttony. What matters more than how we celebrate is what we celebrate. As long as we get that right, we’re on the right track.
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