Why Do We Give Presents at Christmas? Historical Traditions

Updated July 22, 2021
Giving Christmas Present

The hustle and bustle of the season sometimes obscures the reasons for the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas. It is, however, a tradition grounded in history. The custom also exemplifies a human need to express thanks and affection.

Why Do We Give Gifts at Christmas?

Christmas is a traditional time for giving presents. There are personal reasons behind why people give Christmas presents. The motivations vary by the individual, but there are some common themes.

Religious Context

The nativity story has a significant influence on the tradition of Christmas gift-giving. Christians cite the Three Wise Men, or Magi, as the Biblical context for giving presents during the Christmas season. The Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Baby Jesus in the manger.

Imitating the Three Wise Men

These precious items showed the respect and reverence the Wise Men had for the Son of God. Christians likewise bestow presents on family members, friends and the needy as a way of remembering the Three Wise Men honoring of the Christ Child. A modern interpretation of the custom is the recognition that Christmas is Jesus' birthday. Since giving material birthday presents to Him is not possible, instead people give gifts to each other in celebration of the day.

Love and Affection

Christmas presents are a time to surprise and delight those we love. People enjoy finding that perfect gift. Once wrapped and delivered, the giver watches the recipient's happy face as he or she unwraps it.

Magic of Christmas Nostalgia

There is also something special about children's anticipation and hope during this time of year. Little hands can barely stay away from the wrapped presents under the tree. Adults reflect back to their own childhood Christmases with nostalgia and fondness.

Family gift giving Christmas

Business Promotion

Businesses use this time of year for promotion and advertising. Many firms will send presents to valued clients to thank them for their business. Gift giving is also a way to advertise the company and promote positive public relations.

Thank You Gifts

Many people use the Christmas season as a way to say thank you to individuals for their services and efforts throughout the year. People give these gifts to a wide variety of people including:

  • Teachers
  • Postmen
  • Doormen
  • Newspaper delivery people
  • Domestic workers

Businesses also give gifts to employees to express appreciation for the work during the previous year. Sometimes these presents are in the form of money, like a Christmas bonus; other times they are in the form of gift certificates.

Historic Gift Giving Traditions

The custom of giving presents during the middle of winter dates back long before the birth of Jesus. Many early cultures, such as the Romans and the Norse, had winter solstice festivals that included gift giving.

Saturnalia December Celebration

The Roman pagan god of agriculture, Saturn, was celebrated during the winter solstice. Saturnalia was celebrated on December 17. However, some time during the Ancient Roman Republic (133-31 BC), Saturnalia became a bigger celebration. Starting on December 17, the citizens celebrated the entire week. Saturnalia was festive with all kinds of events. Some celebratory practices included giving gifts and sacrifices to Saturn.

Buildings of the Roman Forum in ancient Rome

Saturnalia and the Exchanging of Gifts

According to History.com, Saturnalia was a rowdy week that also included the exchanging of pottery figurines, Signillaria, described as symbols of human sacrifice once practiced as part of past pagan celebrations.

Adoption of Gift Giving for Christmas

This tradition of celebration and gift giving was one of the many customs adopted by Christianity as a way to merge these cultures into the Christian religion. The custom of gift giving at Christmas was a natural adoption of these and other seasonal customs, such as ceremonial lighting of candles, songs of celebration, and holding grand feasts.

Various Christmas Gift Giving Traditions

The Christmas season is a traditional time for giving presents. Not everyone bestows gifts the same way. Various European cultural customs were incorporated into Christmas celebrations. The one thing these celebrations have in common is a story of the gift giver.

Santa Claus and the Christmas Letter

St. Nicholas

St Nicholas is the most prominent figure in many European gift giving practices. St. Nicholas morphed into Father Christmas and later in America into the iconic figure Santa Claus.


Much the same way American children write letters to Santa Claus, in the German Culture, children in Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Liechtenstein send letters asking for gifts to Christkind (also spelled Christkindl), a young girl believed to have Christ-like qualities. However, most people believe the gifts are delivered on Christmas Eve by Father Christmas.

La Befana

Christmas in Italy evolves around La Befana, a type of Santa Clausan except she is an old woman. Some stories cast her as a witch with a cleaning penchant who rides a broom and comes down chimneys with gifts for children on Epiphany (Twelfth Night). She's also reputed to clean the floors before she flies off.

La Befana flying over San Gimignano

Story Behind La Befana

Encyclopedia Britannica says that La Befana was to accompany the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem, but claimed she was too busy to go. She promised to rejoin them when they returned, but the story claims the Three Wise Men journeyed home via a different route. La Befana spent the rest of life searching for them. In other versions of this story, she changed her mind and attempted to catch up with the caravan and bestow gifts to children since she wasn't able to give one to the Christ child.

Festival of Three Kings

Tourist Guide Barcelona notes the tradition of gift giving comes from the Feast of the Three Kings or Feast of Epiphany. Italian children write letters to the Three Kings much the same way American children write to Santa Claus. On January 5, the Three Kings arrive and give children candy. That night children leave their shoes near a window (similar to Christmas stocking traditions) to be filled with the gifts they requested. There's always the risk of receiving a lump of coal if they've been bad. Some Italian families have also adopted the western Christmas tradition of a Christmas tree and gifts from Santa Claus.

Three Wise Men Nativity Scene

Why Presents are Placed Under the Tree

The original Christmas ornaments were gifts of candy, pastries, cookies, apples, and other small presents. Stockings were filled with gifts. Over time, the stockings remained, but permanent ornaments replaced the edible ones. As the tradition grew, so did the types and sizes of gifts. In keeping with the original tradition of gifts on the tree, the gifts too large for stockings found their way under the tree and the edible treats on the tree migrated to the Christmas stockings.

Charitable Donations

Another common gift giving custom is to donate to charities. In keeping with the Christian ethic of helping those in need, donors give money or donate items, such as food and clothing. Christmas donations are a significant part of many non-profits yearly fundraising budgets.

The Many Reasons Why We Give Presents at Christmas

While the reasons for giving presents vary, this custom has made the Christmas season full of surprises and joy. The tradition of gift giving at Christmas is centuries old, and reminds people of Christ's magical birth in a stable so long ago.

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Why Do We Give Presents at Christmas? Historical Traditions