Christmas is about giving. Whether it’s sending cards filled with sentiment and warm wishes, or heartfelt gifts, this is the season for sharing and caring.
Across Vermont, we see the generosity of others. As good neighbors, we tend to be ever-mindful of those struggling or in need. We reach deep into our pockets, especially to benefit children. It is heartening and fulfilling. This can be a challenging time of year for many Vermonters — because of both the cold weather and the high cost of staying warm.
This season of giving has a long history.
Most commonly, it is seen as a symbolic homage to the Three Wise Men’s tributes to the baby Jesus. In the New Testament, the Magi are described as honoring the newborn Savior with valuable gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But gift giving this time of year dates to an even older tradition. Pagans in Europe and the Middle East gave presents at several winter festivals, including Saturnalia, a raucous Roman festival in honor of Saturn, god of agriculture. During this weeklong holiday in the cold, dark dead of winter, pagans would lift their spirits by drinking to excess and giving one another gifts, such as pottery figurines, edible treats like fruit and nuts, and festive candles. Revelers greeted one another with a joyful “Io Saturnalia!” — the ancient Roman equivalent of “Merry Christmas!”
Early Christian leaders phased it out. They considered it their religious duty to eradicate the existing pagan culture, but knew that dumping the beloved festival would cause a backlash. So, in the 4th century, they created a rival festival to mark Jesus’ birth: Christmas.
(The Bible doesn’t explicitly state the date on which Jesus was born, and many theologians place his birth in the spring. But church leaders pushed the date back a few months to Dec. 25 and borrowed some Saturnalia rituals for their own festival to keep the public happy.)
If giving is the yin of the holiday, Scrooge is the yang.
According to historians, the original scrooges were our Pilgrim forefathers. Although today’s commercialized Christmas is considered distinctly American, the festival was banned in the nation’s earliest days. New England’s Puritan leaders considered it a pagan or papist abomination, and any citizen found celebrating around Dec. 25 would be sternly reprimanded.
But when Christmas celebrations became legal in the 1680s, gift giving boomed. Rural Americans carved wooden toys and made pieces of needlework in the agricultural offseason to give to family members and neighbors. The Industrial Revolution saw those handmade items replaced with mass-manufactured trinkets and toys.
By 1867, the holiday-present industry was healthy enough for Macy’s in New York City to keep its doors open until midnight on Christmas Eve for the first time, according to historians.
With that came the commercial angle that has grown into modern Christmas.
Like today, there have always been those who feel the holiday season has strayed more toward making money and away from giving.
By 1904, one writer was already lamenting the rampant commercialism of the day.
“Twenty-five years ago, Christmas was not the burden that it is now,” wrote Margaret Deland in Harper’s Bazaar. “There was less haggling and weighing, less quid pro quo, less fatigue of body, less wearing of soul; and, most of all, there was less loading up with trash.”
Such complaints prompted the creation of organizations like the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, whose members included Anne Morgan, the daughter of banker J.P. Morgan, and former president Theodore Roosevelt.
Retailers were unabashed. Santa Claus, the ultimate giver, started appearing in national advertisements, and eventually evolved from St. Nicholas of Myra, a real-life, 4th-century Byzantine monk who handed out bags of money to the poor, to the “right jolly old elf” from the 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” more commonly known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
By 1890, children could meet live “Santas” at department stores — the new name having been taken from the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas.
It’s an odd but logical evolution, but it has led us to a common goal this time of year: giving.
It’s easy to debate the merits of the holiday, but we can all agree that the sentiment of sharing and caring is what makes Christmas so special for everyone.
Enjoy this time of the year for all that it is worth. It is truly a gift.
From our newspaper staff to you and your family, Merry Christmas.