Photo: Grandfather Frost and Snegurochka, Belarus, in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, 2004. Public domain.
Taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ded_moroz_belarus_1.jpg
The tradition of gift-giving
Christmas holiday developed through centuries as a special time for gift-giving to children, gifts exchange among friends, relatives and colleagues, and material help to the poor.
The most significant contribution to the development of gift-giving to children made St Nicholas, the most popular and respected gift-giver. Anyway, the tradition itself has roots in much earlier times, in ancient rituals and beliefs related to the pagan deities. The similar practice is found in the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia, when people exchanged gifts called “strenae”, named after Strenia, ancient goddess of the new year, purification and wellbeing. Those gifts included usually small objects of copper, silver or gold, candles and sweets. In the Nordic traditions there were symbolic figures acting as the gift-givers for the obedient children. Thus, the major god in Norse mythology, Odin, was believed to ride on his horse Sleipnir and distributed gifts, while in Norway there were mountain trolls to give jewelry or toys as gifts for children.
"Svyatyi Mykolay", Ukrainian stamp 2002. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
With Christianity, these traditions were covered by religious feasts and customs, and the role of gift-givers as attributed to the Saints. Besides the famous St Nicholas, spread almost all over Europe, there were such gift-givers as St Lucy (Scandinavian countries, Italy), St Martin (Catalonia, Austria, Germany), St Catherine (Spain), St Basil (Greece), St Andrew (Germany) and St Barbara (Austria). With time, the tradition of gift-giving gradually developed in all European countries, associated, above all, with Christmas and Epiphany, featuring the other gift-givers like Santa Claus, Grandfather Frost, Julenisse, Kolyada, Christ Child, Befana and many others, with their local peculiarities in different countries, deriving usually either from the religious figures, or from the older traditions of pagan deities and spirits. The festive gift-givers had an educative influence on children, because usually the obedient children received nice gifts from them, while the mischievous ones were “punished” by their helpers by frightening or giving some coal, potatoes or a tree branch. Little by little, the tradition changed in favour of pleasant gifts, and even coal for “bad” children today is made of sugar.
The episode of the Three Kings (the Magi) who came to venerate Jesus Christ after his birth and offered Him special gifts gave origin to the gifts exchange tradition, spread also among adults. Anyway, in the Middle Ages gifts exchange was more a privilege of the wealthy classes, for example, a king could get very much offended if he didn’t receive proper Christmas gifts.
Charity is associated again with St Nicholas who made gifts to the three poor maidens, helping them in this way to get married and avoid slavery. To commemorate this legend, the nuns of some Italian monasteries put out some gifts for poor children, and in general, during the Christmas period people tried to help the poor, putting some coins in their shoes.
With centuries, the gift-giving traditions became more commercialized, limited often to the gifts for children, relatives or friends, so that very often the poor children didn’t receive any gifts for Christmas. Today only some social initiatives and donations to the charity organizations provide a little support to the less fortunate children.
The traditional gifts included some small ritual figures, sweets, fruit and coins in the past, while today the list of possible gifts is extended almost without limits.
Some of the renowned gift-givers in Europe
St Nicholas. Although the tradition of gift-giving goes back to the ancient pre-Christian times, anyway in Europe it became especially widespread, associated with the numerous legends about the Great Wonderworker St Nicholas, his generosity and help to all poor and in need. For centuries, St Nicholas' Feast and related gift-giving were the most spread and popular traditions throughout Europe, and his very figure was in the origin of the later folk gift-givers, including Santa Claus and Father Christmas. St Nicholas is accompanied traditionally by a helper (Black Peter, known under various local names) and a donkey. Go to the article dedicated to St Nicholas and traditions of his feast day.
Picture: St. Nikolaas op de schoorsteen. Illustration by Jan Schenkman, from St. Nikolaas en zijn knecht. G. Theod. Bom, Amsterdam z.j.
Taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St._Nikolaas_op_de_schoorsteen.jpg
St Lucy. This young Sicilian martyr became a gift-giver to children in some regions of Italy. By tradition, she brings gifts to good children and coal to bad ones, coming with the donkey. Go to the article dedicated to St Lucy and traditions of her feast day.
Santa Lucia, by Serse82 - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Sinterklaas. This figure represents, actually, St Nicholas in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and in some parts of Germany and France. After the Protestant Reformation public religious celebrations were abolished in all Europe, remaining alive only at homes, but in Netherlands and Belgium by strong protests people managed to keep the tradition of Sinterklaas officially. Read more about Sinterklaas tradition here: St Nicholas traditions.
Santa Claus, Father Christmas. Sinterklaas tradition was brought to America in the 18th century by the Dutch immigrants. After some time the tradition developed into a new character: Santa Claus, and was moved to the Christmas celebration. Santa Claus was quite different from the traditional image of St Nicholas (or Sinterklaas), and in the following centuries became more and more commercialized, also turning back to Europe and spreading there in folk traditions as Santa Claus or under local names: Father Christmas (England), Babbo Natale (Italy), modern Julenisse and Jultomte (in Scandinavian countries), Kerstman (in the Netherlands), Père Noël (in France), Weihnachtsmann (in Germany) and others. The popular legend about Santa Claus tells that he lives at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus, his wife, and prepares Christmas gifts throughout the year, together with his helpers – little Christmas Elves. Then at Christmas Eve he rides in his flying sleigh with eight flying reindeers and at midnight enters the houses through the chimneys and leaves presents for the children.
"Old Father Christmas Image", edited by Mark Forrester - Forrester's Pictorial Miscellany for the Family Circle. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Grandfather Frost. This character was created in the times of the Soviet Union, to cover the previous folk beliefs and religious traditions. Grandfather Frost was probably inspired by the folklore fonts like fairy-tales that featured a powerful governor of winter and frost. The gift-givers that were present before in the Slavic traditions, included mythological deity Kolyada, St Nicholas and Baboushka, the character related to the Three Kings. Grandfather Frost was strongly associated with the secular celebration of the New Year, leaving presents for children under the New Year Tree, and usually accompanied by Snegurochka (or the Snow Maiden).
Before-revolution Russian Christmas card with Grandfather Frost and Snow Maiden. by Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Julenisse. This is a popular Christmas gift-giver in Scandinavian countries (Jultomte in Sweden, Julenisse in Norway, Julemand in Denmark and Joulupukki in Finland). This character is based on the fairy creature Nisse, or Tomte that, according to the folk beliefs, lived on the Scandinavian farms and in houses. Nisse are perhaps the only creatures that survived with the arrival of Christianity in Europe. In the 19th century Julenisse replaced the traditional Julbock (Yule Goat), who used to bring Christmas presents. With time the figure of Julenisse assumed some features of the popular Santa Claus, but the original traditions are still strong. Go to the article dedicated to Nisse (Tomte), original traditions and Christmas associations related to them.
Picture: Tomte. Author: Jenny Nyström.
Taken from http://www.scandinavianchristmastraditions.com/tomteornissetraditions.html
Yulemen. Yulemen (or Jólasveinar in Icelandic) are original folkloristic figures in Iceland, associated with Christmas and gift-giving. Their number has varied throughout the ages, and today is usually fixed on thirteen. According to the local tales, Yulemen were the sons of the monstrous mountain-dwelling trolls Grýla and Leppalúði who ate children, caused various mischief in the household and stole food, and so they were quite terrifying visitors during the Christmas period. Yulemen were believed to come down from the mountain and visit the villages during 13 nights before Christmas, each of them had his own name and features. Often parents used these characters to frighten the mischievous children. Anyway, the global spread of Santa Claus figure made Yulemen less scary, more Santa-like and much expected gift-givers in the families.
Picture: Yule Lads, illustration
Taken from http://jol.ismennt.is/myndasafn2.htm
Christ Child. This figure appeared in the European traditions as a Christmas gift-giver after the Reformation of 16-17th centuries. The Protestants tried to discourage the figure of St Nicholas, very spread at that time, and introduced this image of a sprite-like Child, usually with blond hair and angelic wings, that represented infant Jesus. The tradition of gift-giving was consequently moved from St Nicholas’ Day to Christmas. Christ Child figure is spread today in some regions of the European countries: it is known as Christkind in Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, France and Switzerland, Gesù Bambino in Italy, Menino Jesus in Portugal, Ježíšek in the Czech Republic, Ježiško in Slovakia and Jézuska in Hungary.
Picture: Knecht Ruprecht und das Christkind
Taken from http://www.klosterkirche.de/zeiten/advent/nikolaus-8.php
The Magi, or Three Kings, or Wise Men, are Biblical figures who visited infant Jesus and brought him gifts: gold, incense and myrrh. The Magi became usual characters during the Christmas period in the Western Catholic tradition, featured in the Nativity scenes, religious ceremonies and various representations. The Catholic feast of Epiphany is dedicated to commemoration of the Magi. In Spain the Magi are also spread as special gift-givers on Epiphany. Traditionally, they come from the orient on their camels and visit the houses to leave gifts for children. The Orthodox Church, however, does not include the Magi in the doctrine, they are not considered kings, neither counted or given names as in the Catholic tradition. The Orthodox commemorate the Magi as mere characters from Gospels, on Christmas Day. Read more about the tradition of the Magi: Epiphany and the Magi
"The three Magi (Balthasar, Caspar, Melchior)" di Made at the Hohenburg Abbey, France, 1185 by Herrad of Landsberg (c.1130 - July 25, 1195) These illustrations are from a reproduction by Christian Maurice Engelhardt, 1818 - Hortus Deliciarum. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Befana. Befana is one of the few female gift-givers. She is spread mostly in Italy, and is very similar to Russian Baboushka, and in some traditions to the German Frau Berchta. According to the legend, the Magi invited Befana to join them in their travel of adoration of Jesus, but she was too long in making order in her house so that didn’t manage to see the Infant. From then on, she wanders in the world searching for the Holy Child, and on Epiphany brings presents to the good children, and coal for mischievous ones.
Picture: La Befana, eching by Bartolomeo Pinelli
Taken from http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/art/259958