Every year, the approach of Christmas is accompanied by articles complaining that Christmas has become overly commercialised, that people spend too much on presents, and the true spirit of Christmas has been forgotten. The usual suspects are consumer society, advertising or capitalism more generally. But the suspicion that Christmas (and the exchange of presents that accompany it) is not what it used to be is not a twenty-first century phenomenon. It is in fact older than Christmas itself.
The Christmas present has its origins in the pagan Roman mid-winter festival Saturnalia, celebrated on 19 December. On this day the normal hierarchy was suspended and slaves would sit at the banquet table while their masters served them: a distant ancestor of the boss serving punch at the office Christmas party. It was also a day of gift giving, children were given toys and friends sent each other little presents of games or luxurious food. But even in Roman times some people felt that presents were neither given nor received in the right generous spirit.
The Roman poet Martial complained that people only looked at the cost of a present: when they received an amphora of wine (already then a classic for gifts to less-than close relations) they would ask what year it was from rather than appreciate its taste. Martial was still more worried that some people used gifts to win favour for themselves by, for instance, bombarding elderly relations with presents in the hope of being included in their will. These people, Martial complained, were not really being generous: they were just using gifts as “bait” for their crooked hooks. The introduction of Christianity created new anxieties. Although the Three Wise Men had brought Jesus offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh it was less clear to early Christians that this was a model for how they should behave.
The fifth-century theologian Augustine of Hippo strictly censured those Christians who continued with the old Saturnalia tradition: for a Christian the generous thought should be enough, and instead of wasting their money on presents believers should spend it on alms for the poor. It is not then online shopping or Christmas catalogues that has destroyed the idea of the Christmas present: it has been in danger of being corrupted from the day it was born. Presents ask us to do an almost impossible task to express our immaterial feelings through a particular physical object, while also taking care not to cause offence or breach social expectations. Not for nothing did the French philosopher Jacques Derrida declare that a true gift was “impossible”. But neither the ancient Romans nor later Christians accepted the doom mongering of scrooges like Augustine or Derrida.
The dangers of gift-giving could be avoided, suggested the Roman philosopher Seneca, if one gave in the right manner: gently and politely, without making a big thing of it, and taking care to choose presents that would be useful to the recipient, rather than whatever would impress others. And if Christmas presents were wasteful that too could be seen as a good thing, a joyous freeing ourselves of the demands to be efficient and economical. A comforting thought as we approach the stress of the Christmas shopping.