Gifts on Christmas Day

The presentation of gifts on Christmas day was an English custom of very great antiquity; so great that, in 1419, the practice had become much corrupted, and the abuse had to be sternly repressed. Hence we find the following "Regulation made that the Sergeants and other officers of the Mayor, Sheriffs, or City, shall not beg for Christmas gifts.

"Forasmuch as it is not becoming or agreeable to propriety that those who are in the service of reverend men, and from them, or through them, have the advantage of befitting food and raiment, as also of reward, or remuneration, in a competent degree, should, after a perverse custom, be begging aught of people, like paupers; and seeing that in times past, every year at the feast of our Lord's Nativity (25th December), according to a certain custom, which has grown to be an abuse, the vadlets of the Mayor, the Sheriffs and the Chamber of the said city—persons who have food, raiment, and appropriate advantages, resulting from their office,—under colour of asking for an oblation, have begged many sums of money of brewers, bakers, cooks, and other victuallers; and, in some instances, have, more than once, threatened wrongfully to do them an injury if they should refuse to give them something; and have frequently made promises to others that, in return for a present, they would pass over their unlawful doings in mute silence; to the great dishonour of their masters, and to the common loss of all the city: therefore, on Wednesday, the last day of April, in the 7th year of King Henry the Fifth, by William Sevenok, the Mayor, and the Aldermen of London, it was ordered and established that no vadlet, or other sergeant of the Mayor, Sheriffs, or City, should in future beg or require of any person, of any rank, degree, or condition whatsoever, any moneys, under colour of an oblation, or in any other way, on pain of losing his office."

Royalty was not above receiving presents on this day, and as, of course, such presents could not be of small value, it must have been no small tax on the nobility. Pepys (23rd February 1663) remarks: "This day I was told that my Lady Castlemaine hath all the King's Christmas presents, made him by the Peers, given to her, which is a most abominable thing." He records his own Christmas gifts (25th December 1667): "Being a fine, light, moonshine morning, home round the city, and stopped and dropped money at five or six places, which I was the willinger to do, it being Christmas day."


Another pretty Christ-tide custom has also come to us from Germany, that of putting presents into stockings left out for the purpose whilst the children sleep on Christmas eve. St. Nicholas (or Santa Claus, as he is now called), the patron of children, ought to get the credit of it. In America the presents are supposed to be brought by a fabulous personage called Krishkinkle, who is believed to come down the chimney laden with good things for those children whose conduct had been exemplary during the past year; for peccant babies the stocking held a birch rod. Krishkinkle is a corruption of Christ-kindlein or Child Christ.


Christmas and New Year Gifts

We have come across presents of various kinds at the pre-Christmas festivals; now that we have reached Christmastide itself we may dwell a little upon the festival as the great present-giving season of the year, and try to get at the origins of the custom.

The Roman strenae offered to the Emperor or exchanged between private citizens at the January Kalends have already been noted. According to tradition they were originally merely branches plucked from the grove of the goddess Strenia, and the purpose of these may well have been akin to that of the greenery used for decorations, viz., to secure contact with a vegetation-spirit. In the time of the Empire, however, the strenae were of a more attractive character, “men gave honeyed things, that the year of the recipient might be full of sweetness, lamps that it might be full of light, copper and silver and gold that wealth might flow in amain.” Such presents were obviously a kind of charm for the New Year, based on the principle that as the beginning was, so would the rest of the year be.

With the adoption of the Roman New Year's Day its present-giving customs appear to have spread far and wide. In France, where the Latin spirit is still strong, January 1 is even now the great day for presents, and they are actually called étrennes, a name obviously derived from strenae. In Paris boxes of sweets are then given by bachelors to friends who have entertained them at their houses during the year—a survival perhaps of the “honeyed things” given in Roman times.

In many countries, however, present-giving is attached to the ecclesiastical festival of Christmas. This is doubtless largely due to attraction from the Roman New Year's Day to the feast hallowed by the Church, but readers of the foregoing pages will have seen that Christmas has also drawn to itself many practices of a November festival, and it is probable that German Christmas presents, at least, are connected as much with the apples and nuts of St. Martin and St. Nicholas as with the Roman strenae. It has already been pointed out that the German St. Nicholas as present-giver appears to be a duplicate of St. Martin, and that St. Nicholas himself has often wandered from his own day to Christmas, or has been replaced by the Christ Child. We have also noted the rod associated with the two saints, and seen reason for thinking that its original purpose was not disciplinary but health-giving.

It is interesting to find that while, if we may trust tradition, the Roman strenae were originally twigs, Christmas gifts in sixteenth-century Germany showed a connection with the twigs or rods of St. Martin and St. Nicholas. The presents were tied together in a bundle, and a twig was added to them. This was regarded by the pedagogic mind of the period not as a lucky twig but as a rod in the sinister sense. In some Protestant sermons of the latter half of the century there are curious detailed references to Christmas presents. These are supposed to be brought to children by the Saviour Himself, strangely called the Haus-Christ. Among the gifts mentioned as contained in the “Christ-bundles” are pleasant things like money, sugar-plums, cakes, apples, nuts, dolls; useful things like clothes; and also things “that belong to teaching, obedience, chastisement, and discipline, as A.B.C. tablets, Bibles and handsome books, writing materials, paper, etc., and the ‘Christ-rod.’”

A common gift to German children at Christmas or the New Year was an apple with a coin in it; the coin may conceivably be a Roman survival, while the apple may be connected with those brought by St. Nicholas.

The Christ Child is still supposed to bring presents in Germany; in France, too, it is sometimes le petit Jésus who bears the welcome gifts. In Italy we shall find that the great time for children's presents is Epiphany Eve, when the Befana comes, though in the northern provinces Santa Lucia is sometimes a gift-bringer. In Sicily the days for gifts and the supposed bringers vary; sometimes, as we have already seen, it is the dead who bring them, on All Souls’ Eve; sometimes it is la Vecchia di Natali—the Christmas old woman—who comes with them on Christmas Eve; sometimes they are brought by the old woman Strina—note the derivation from strenae—at the New Year; sometimes by the Befana at the Epiphany.

A curious mode of giving presents on Christmas Eve belongs particularly to Sweden, though it is also found—perhaps borrowed—in Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and other parts of Germany. The so-called Julklapp is a gift wrapped up in innumerable coverings. The person who brings it raps noisily at the door, and throws or pushes the Julklapp into the room. It is essential that he should arrive quite unexpectedly, and come and go like lightning without revealing his identity. Great efforts are made to conceal the gift so that the recipient after much trouble in undoing the covering may have to search and search again to find it. Sometimes in Sweden a thin gold ring is hidden away in a great heavy box, or a little gold heart is put in a Christmas cake. Occasionally a man contrives to hide in the Julklapp and thus offer himself as a Christmas present to the lady whom he loves. The gift is often accompanied by some satirical rhyme, or takes a form intended to tease the recipient.

Another custom, sometimes found in “better-class” Swedish households, is for the Christmas presents to be given by two masked figures, an old man and an old woman. The old man holds a bell in his hand and rings it, the old woman carries a basket full of sealed packets, which she delivers to the addressees.

There is nothing specially interesting in modern English modes of present-giving. We may, however, perhaps see in the custom of Christmas boxes, inexorably demanded and not always willingly bestowed, a degeneration of what was once friendly entertainment given in return for the good wishes and the luck brought by wassailers. Instances of gifts to calling neighbours have already come before our notice at several pre-Christmas festivals, notably All Souls’, St. Clement's, and St. Thomas's. As for the name “Christmas box,” it would seem to have come from the receptacles used for the gifts. According to one account apprentices, journeymen, and servants used to carry about earthen boxes with a slit in them, and when the time for collecting was over, broke them to obtain the contents.

The Christmas card, a sort of attenuated present, seems to be of quite modern origin. It is apparently a descendant of the “school pieces” or “Christmas pieces” popular in England in the first half of the nineteenth century—sheets of writing-paper with designs in pen and ink or copper-plate headings. The first Christmas card proper appears to have been issued in 1846, but it was not till about 1862 that the custom of card-sending obtained any foothold.


There are some very curious tenures of lands and manors connected with Christmas which must not be passed over. I have taken them from Blount's book on the subject, as being the best authority.

Bondby, Lincolnshire.—Sir Edward Botiler, knight, and Ann, his wife, sister and heir of Hugh le Despencer, hold the manor of Bondby, in the county of Lincoln, by the service of bearing a white rod before our Lord the King on the Feast of Christmas, if the King should be in that county at the said feast.

Bridshall, Staffordshire.—Sir Philip de Somerville, knight, holdeth of his lord, the Earl of Lancaster, the manor of Briddeshalle by these services, that at such time as his lord holdeth his Christmas at Tutbury, the said Sir Philip shall come to Tutbury upon Christmas Even, and shall be lodged in the town of Tutbury, by the marshal of the Earl's house, and upon Christmas Day he himself, or some other knight, his deputy, shall go to the dresser, and shall sew his lord's mess, and then shall he carve the same meat to his said lord, and this service shall he do as well at supper as at dinner, and, when his lord hath eaten, the said Sir Philip shall sit down in the same place where his lord sat, and shall be served at his table by the steward of the Earl's house. And upon St. Stephen's day, when he hath dined, he shall take his leave of his lord and shall kiss him; and all these services to-fore rehearsed, the said Philip hath done by the space of XLVIII (48) years, and his ancestors before him, to his lords, Earls of Lancaster.

Brimington, Derbyshire. — Geoffery, son of William de Brimington, gave, granted, and confirmed to Peter, son of Hugh de Brimington, one toft with the buildings, and three acres of land in the fields there, with twenty pence yearly rent, which he used to receive of Thomas, son of Gilbert de Bosco, with the homages, etc., rendering yearly to him and his heirs a pair of white gloves, of the price of a halfpenny, at Christmas yearly, for all services.

Brook House, Yorkshire.— A farm at Langsett, in the parish of Peniston and county of York, pays yearly to Godfrey Bosville, Esqre., a snowball at Midsummer, and a red rose at Christmas.

Burge, Derbyshire.— Hugh, son and heir of Philip de Stredley, made fine with the King by two marks for his relief for the Mill of Burge, in the county of Derby, which the said Philip held of the King in capite, by the service of finding one man bearing a heron falcon, every year in season, before the King, when he should be summoned, and to take for performing the said service, at the cost of the King, two robes at Whitsuntide and Christmas.

Greens-Norton, Northamptonshire. — This, so named of the Greens (persons famed in the sixteenth century for their wealth), called before Norton-Dauncy, was held of the King in capite by the service of lifting up their right hands towards the King yearly, on Christmas day, wheresoever the King should then be in England.

Hawarden andBosele,Cheshire.— The manors of Hawarden and Bosele, with the appurtenances in the county of Cheshire, are held of the King in capite by Robert de Monhault, Earl of Arundel, by being steward of the county of Cheshire, viz. by the service of setting down the first dish before the Earl of Chester at Chester on Christmas day.

Hedsor, Bucks.— An estate in this parish, called Lambert Farm, was formerly held under the manor by the service of bringing in the first dish at the lord's table on St. Stephen's day, and presenting him with two hens, a cock, a gallon of ale, and two manchets of white bread; after dinner the lord delivered to the tenant a sparrow hawk and a couple of spaniels, to be kept at his costs and charges for the lord's use.

Hemingston, Suffolk.— Rowland le Sarcere held one hundred and ten acres of land in Hemingston by serjeanty; for which, on Christmas day every year, before our sovereign lord the King of England, he should perform altogether, and at once, a leap, puff up his cheeks, therewith making a sound, and let a crack.

Levington, Yorkshire.— Adam de Bras, lord of Skelton, gave in marriage with his daughter Isabel, to Henry de Percy, eldest son and heir of Joceline de Lovain (ancestor to the present Duke of Northumberland), the manor of Levington, for which he and his heirs were to repair to Skelton Castle every Christmas day, and lead the lady of that castle from her chamber to the chapel to mass, and thence to her chamber again, and after dining with her, to depart.

Redworth Co., Durham.— In the fourth year of Bishop Skirlawe, 1391, John de Redworth died, seised in his demesne, etc. of two messuages and twenty-six acres of land and meadow, with the appurtenances, in Redworth, held of [Pg 193] the said Lord Bishop in capite by homage and fealty, and the service of four shillings and ten pence a year, to be paid at the Exchequer at Durham, and the rent of one hen and two parts of a hen to be paid at the same Exchequer yearly at Christmas.

Stamford, Lincolnshire.— William, Earl Warren, lord of this town in the time of King John, standing upon the castle walls, saw two bulls fighting for a cow in the Castle Meadow, till all the butchers' dogs pursued one of the bulls (maddened with noise and multitude) clean through the town. This sight so pleased the Earl that he gave the Castle Meadow, where the bulls' duel had begun, for a common to the butchers of the town, after the first grass was mown, on condition that they should find a mad bull the day six weeks before Christmas day, for the continuance of the sport for ever.

Thurgarton and Horsepoll, Notts.— The tenants of these manors held their lands by these customs and services. Every native and villein (which were such as we call husbandmen) paid each a cock and a hen, besides a small rent in money, for a toft and one bovate of land, held of the Priory of Thurgarton. These cocks and hens were paid the second day in Christmas, and that day every one, both cottagers and natives, dined in the hall; and those who did not had a white loaf and a flagon of ale, with one mess from the kitchen. And all the reapers in harvest, which were called hallewimen, were to eat in the hall one day in Christmas, or afterwards, at the discretion of the cellarer.

There is a curious custom still carried out at Queen's College, Oxford. On the feast of the Circumcision the bursar gives to every member a needle and thread, adding the injunction, "Take this and be thrifty." It is said, I know not with what truth, that it is to commemorate the name of the founder, Robert Egglesfield—by the visible pun, aiguille (needle) and fil (thread).

Christmas In Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan by Clement A. Miles—1912

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