Sadly, for many of us, the season of Christmas gift-giving all too often turns into an onerous chore, as we agonise endlessly over our choice of presents or, Scrooge-like, put in very little effort at all. Last minute panic-stricken Christmas eve dashes are nerve-frazzling and liable to cause stress and grumpiness – which all too often gets taken out on the recipients. At the other end of the scale, there is often a tendency to throw too much cash at the problem – we end up being embarrassed by our own generosity, and possibly resentful of the money we have squandered.
This year the cost-of-living crisis poses a new set of problems for many of us. Splashing the cash may simply not be a viable option, so we’re exploring other ways of navigating the Christmas gift-giving challenge.
Was it ever thus? We’ve taken a brief look at the history of Christmas gift traditions…
Saturnalia, Santa Claus and Wassail
The Romans celebrated an end-of-year feast, called Saturnalia, which was a riot of drinking, merry-and anarchy. Small gifts, such as combs, dice, writing tablets and toothpicks, were exchanged during this period, mainly between men. With the advent of Christianity, these rituals morphed into the custom of gift-giving on New Year’s Day, seen as a tribute to the gifts brought by the Magi of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
By the Middle Ages the New Year gift-giving tradition had turned into opportunity to seek favour and appease the powerful – monarchs received a rich booty of gold and silver trinkets from grateful, and ambitious, subjects. Ordinary people, meanwhile, restricted their presents to items such as oranges and cloves, which were considered extremely exotic. December 6th was a celebration of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, and this was a time for indulging and gift-giving. Over time, Saint Nicholas, known to the Dutch as Sinterklaas, became Santa Claus, and his gift-giving day moved to Christmas Eve.
It was the Victorians, ably assisted by Charles Dickens, who turned the wassailing and carousing of the traditional British into a family-friendly festival, which brought the family together on Christmas Day to eat and exchange presents. Initially, gifts were no more than the cheap trinkets, fruit, nuts and sweets that hung from the newly introduced tree (a German tradition that arrived courtesy of Prince Albert). As the century progressed, presents became slightly more elaborate, and a great premium was placed on hand-crafted gifts, which showcased ladies’ needle-working skills.
The commercial phenomenon of Christmas accelerated throughout the 20th century, especially as society became more secular. For many manufacturers Christmas represented a peak sales season and increasingly they turned to mass marketing – from themed window displays to Christmas branding and elaborate seasonal television and social media campaigns – to shift their goods.
Today, we are all inundated with Christmas campaigns, fed an aspirational diet of “perfect Christmases” through tv advertising, and bombarded with marketing campaigns and special offers. It is scarcely surprising that we are susceptible to the relentless sales pitch and liable to go overboard when it comes to purchasing presents. It all seems a long way from the exchange of humble trinkets, exotic fruits and hand-crafted items enjoyed by our ancestors.
There are several ways in which you can remedy your approach to present-giving this Christmas to ensure that you spread seasonal cheer without breaking your budget:
• Decide on a present budget
It may sound over-pragmatic, but a lot of present-giving problems are caused by people having entirely different expectations when it comes to Christmas expenditure. If your simple gift is hugely trumped by an extravagantly indulgent present, it is highly likely that you will spend Christmas Day feeling both embarrassed and resentful. Discussing this dilemma openly beforehand and agreeing a budget with your family (which can be calibrated to ensure that more money is spent on the children) will pre-empt these problems without detracting from the magic on Christmas Day.
• Agree a Secret Santa scheme
This is a good solution for large families, where presents multiply alarmingly. All you need to do is organise the list of participants, set the budget, draw the names out of a hat (or you can use an online generator) to nominate a gift-receiver for each participant. This will certainly curtail your Christmas expenditure, but you will find that it is much more popular amongst adults than children, who may well be bitterly disappointed to find they only receive one present.
• Opt out Altogether
There is no rule that dictates that presents should be exchanged on Christmas Day, and it is quite acceptable to agree with relations that you are not going to do so (though this solution is only recommended for adults). Before you suggest such a dramatic step, you will need to establish that other people are on-board and are genuinely happy to forego presents. If there is just one stand-out, who feels the whole policy is disappointingly mean-spirited, then you may find that Christmas Day conviviality is severely impaired.
• Get Creative
Encourage your children to make gifts – a framed picture from a child’s art class, a box of cookies the child has baked, a plant that has been cultivated from seed. Most aunts, uncles and grandparents will be deeply touched by these handmade presents.
• Consider Regifting
It clearly makes economic sense to find a new home for unwanted gifts, but you must employ the utmost caution. Only re-gift if you are absolutely confident that the original present-giver and the recipient of the re-gifting will never cross paths, so you are probably wise to avoid re-gifting within your immediate social circle. Never make the mistake of re-gifting a present back to the original giver – that is a faux pas from which it is hard to recover.
• Give Gourmet Treats
This year, as food costs escalate alarmingly, many of us will be cutting back on seasonal indulgences. So this is a really good time to assemble your own Christmas gift hampers, where you can put together a selection of salmon, pâté, cheese, home-made mince pies and cookies, chutneys, chocolates. If you buy in bulk and divide your Christmas booty up between hampers, you’ll find it much more economical.
• Plan your Purchases
Some of the most expensive present-giving blunders are the result of panic and desperation. If you wander the shops, feeling devoid of any inspiration, you are much more likely to be tempted by ill-advised purchases, which are frequently more than you can afford. Before you start present-buying, whether it is online or on the high street, sit down with a pen and paper, list the people you have to buy for, and try to allocate a present idea to each (note the probable cost and ensure it is within your personal budget). The list might not be definitive, but it will set some parameters and make you feel you’re in control.