The history of Christmas gifts

Whether left under the tree, hung in stockings or handed over in person, it's important to find the best Christmas gifts.

But where did this tradition of gift giving come from? And what did our ancestors like to give each other in the days of Christmas past?

The origins of Christmas presents

Christmas Nativity scene with The Three Wise MenFor Christians, the Three Wise Men brought the first Christmas presents to the baby Jesus. According to the Bible, they brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold was associated with kings, frankincense was a scent used in Jewish worship and myrrh was used for embalming the dead.

But the tradition of giving presents around December goes back even earlier. The winter solstice was celebrated by pagans long before the advent of Christianity.

The Romans

Christmas nutsIn ancient Rome, the winter pagan festival was Saturnalia. In true Roman fashion, it was a week-long binge of eating, drinking and partying. The ancient Romans gave each other gifts too. Popular presents included pottery or wax figures, fruits, nuts and candles.

Early Christians and the legend of St Nicholas

Wooden carving of Saint NicholasThe day of Jesus’ birth was established as December 25 in around the year 336 AD. Yet many pagan customs continued in the festive season, including the tradition of giving gifts.

The new festival of Christmas became tied in with stories like that of St Nicholas. He was an early Christian bishop in the ancient Greek city of Myra, who was famous for his generosity and secret gift giving. His most famous act of kindness was to save three young women from a life of poverty by throwing bags of gold down their chimney at night. Little wonder he became the forerunner of Father Christmas.

The Middle Ages

For a while in the Middle Ages, the church banned Christmas gifts. These early Scrooges weren’t keen on presents at this time of year because they thought it was too close to pagan traditions.

Christmas in medieval times

Leather bag of coinsChristmas lasted for 12 days in medieval times, with gifts most commonly given on New Year’s Day. The festive season was also seen as a time of charity and money was a popular gift for landlords to give to poor tenants.

The roots of Boxing Day start here. On the day after Christmas, clay pots and boxes containing donations were opened and given to the needy. They were certainly in use by 1663 when Samuel Pepys mentions donating to one in his famous diaries.

The Tudors

Pile of jewels and necklacesIn the Tudor royal court, presents were usually given on New Year’s Day rather than December 25. Records show presents exchanged at court included jewels, money, clothing and even a pair of Shire horses.

The famously indulgent Henry VIII was no slouch when it came to Christmas. In 1509, the then 19-year-old monarch spent an astounding amount on celebrating the season. In fact he spent the equivalent of £13.5m – almost his entire tax revenue for the year.

Gifts were a big part of this total. He ordered £83 of gifts from one goldsmith – which in today’s money would be worth around £41,000.

He also gave gifts of £2 (£967 today) to the Children of the Royal Chapel for singing hymns on Christmas Day.

The Victorians

Old doll sat at toy tableLike much of our modern Christmas, the idea of festive gift giving really took off in the 1800s.

The main day for presents had now moved to Christmas Day itself. Still, at the start of the Victorian era gifts were likely to be small, such as fruit, nuts, sweets and small handmade presents. These were hung on the Christmas tree, another aspect of the festive season popularised during Queen Victoria’s reign.

But, as the industrial revolution took hold, Victorian entrepreneurs and shopkeepers saw the potential of Christmas. In 1881 the weekly journal ‘Lady’s Pictorial’ described shops transformed with gifts:

‘Christmas cards in almost every window, in the companionship of the attractions of the toy-seller, the wares of the draper, the irresistible temptations of the milliner, and of their more legitimate comrades in the show-cases of the stationer – from everywhere have these pretty little tokens of goodwill and kindly thoughts been peering out and seeking the attention of the passer-by.’

Soon luxuries such as games, dolls, books and clockwork toys became more affordable to the middle classes. Presents started to go under the tree and the idea of Christmas as a magical time for children was truly born.

However, poorer children were still lucky to get some fruit and a few nuts as a present. These would be hung in their stocking – which itself became a custom in the second half of the 19th century.

The Victorian era was also when the modern idea of Father Christmas was born. He was a mixture of the Christian Saint Nicholas, traditional figures of good cheer and a Dutch legend called Sinterklaas. His appearance as “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” came from Clement C Moore’s 1822 poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’, also known as ‘Twas the night before Christmas’. By 1888, JP Robert of Stratford, West Ham had opened the first Santa’s Grotto in his store. Now children could tell Santa in person what they wanted for Christmas.

Early 20th Century

Toy train set under Christmas treeBy the turn of the 20th century, a vast range of Christmas presents were available to buy.

Department stores competed to offer the best gifts. Gamages, a huge London shop, published a catalogue in December 1913 which had almost 500 pages of Christmas gifts.

To whip up even more excitement, the phrase ‘only X shopping days to Christmas’ was coined. It was first used by Gordon Selfridge, while working in a store in Chicago. He later founded the famous Selfridges department store on London’s Oxford Street.

As with the Victorians, children’s presents were extremely popular. Rocking horses, board games, toy soldiers, skipping ropes, wooden farms, train sets, mechanical animals and stuffed toys were among children's favourites.

First World War

During the war, celebrating Christmas and keeping morale up were a priority. Then, as a surge of patriotism took over the country, toy soldiers, guns and uniforms became popular children’s presents.

But, with shortages of essential items, Christmas gifts reflected the times in other ways. People wanted to send something useful to their loved ones serving in the armed forces. Gifts heading to the front line included gloves, pipes, writing cases, razors, watches and lighters. Cigarettes were also always popular among the troops.

In December 1914 a special sorting office opened in London’s Regent Park to deal with mail to the troops. Called the Home Depot, it covered five acres and was the largest wooden structure in the world at the time. It had 2,500 mostly female workers and at its peak handled 12 million letters and 1 million parcels each week.

The first year of the war also saw a Christmas Gift Fund launched by Princess Mary. The 17-year-old daughter of King George V was inspired by hospital visits to injured soldiers. She created the fund to send a Christmas gift to every sailor at sea and every soldier at the front.

The fund-raising campaign caught the imagination of the nation and raised £160,000. The gift sent was an embossed brass box. It contained a Christmas card and a picture of the Princess alongside other treats. Smokers received a pipe, an ounce of tobacco, 20 cigarettes and a tinder lighter. Non-smokers got a packet of acid tablets and a khaki writing case containing a pencil, paper and envelopes. Over 426,724 boxes were delivered by Christmas Day 1914, with another 2 million delivered over the next four years.

But perhaps the most extraordinary presents of the First World War were given on Christmas Day 1914. During the famous Christmas Truce, soldiers on both sides climbed out of their trenches to exchange cigarettes and souvenirs. The Christmas spirit was short lived and the soldiers were soon back firing at each other.

Second World War

Christmas – and presents - changed greatly during the war years. At the start of the war in 1939, lucky children might have got military uniforms or card games like ‘Blackout’ and ‘Vacuation’ which played on the new realities of the war. Meanwhile topical presents for adults included helmets and leather gas mask cases.

But, as the war went on, Christmas presents were in short supply. Toy factories were turned over to war production, while by 1942 rationing hit popular presents like sweets and soap. Instead, people gave homemade Christmas gifts, with magazines full of ideas for making things from scraps of material or old cutlery. People were also encouraged to give National Savings Certificates to help the war effort.

Post war

Toy train set at ChristmasAfter the hard times of the war years, rationing finally ended in 1954. From the mid-50s shops again started to stock a wide range of toys. Popular presents included Corgi and Matchbox cars, Airfix model kits and presents inspired by TV programmes like Muffin the Mule and Sooty.

By the 1960s Scalextric sets, the Etch-a-Sketch, Sindy dolls and Meccano had become children’s favourites. Beano and Dandy annuals were also popular, alongside traditional stocking fillers like satsumas and nuts.

From these decades the idea of the must-have present started. The truly modern age of the Christmas gift had begun. From Action Men to Star Wars toys, games consoles to iPhones, each year children – and adults – dreamt of getting the latest craze.  What will be in your Christmas stocking this year?