Roman Gift-Giving During Christmas – Did They Follow the Tradition?

Holidays & Special Events

By Kristy Tolley

Christmas is a holiday that is widely celebrated around the world. It is a time when people come together to exchange gifts, feast on delicious food, and spend quality time with their loved ones. But have you ever wondered if the tradition of giving presents during Christmas originated from the ancient Romans?

The Romans had their own winter festival called Saturnalia, which was held in mid-December. This festival was a time of great merriment and joy, with feasting, dancing, and gift-giving. During Saturnalia, it was customary for the Romans to exchange small tokens of appreciation and affection with their friends and family.

Gifts during Saturnalia were often simple and inexpensive, such as small trinkets, candles, or homemade treats. However, the sentiment behind the gifts was what mattered most – it was a way for the Romans to show their love and appreciation for one another during this festive season.

So, while the Romans did give presents during their winter festival, it is important to note that the tradition of exchanging gifts during Christmas as we know it today has evolved over time. Nevertheless, the spirit of giving and showing love during the holiday season remains the same, no matter the culture or time period.

Origin of Christmas Gift-Giving

Christmas gift-giving can be traced back to various ancient traditions and cultures. The practice of exchanging gifts during the holiday season has evolved over time and is now a significant part of the Christmas celebration.

One of the earliest origins of Christmas gift-giving dates back to the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a festival held in December to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. During this festival, Romans would exchange small gifts, known as sigillaria, which were often small figurines or dolls made of terracotta or wax.

In the 4th century, when Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, the celebration of Saturnalia was transformed into Christmas. However, the tradition of giving gifts remained. Christians saw gift-giving as a way to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and emulate the gifts brought by the Magi to the baby Jesus in the biblical story.

Another influence on the tradition of Christmas gift-giving comes from the story of St. Nicholas, a 4th-century bishop from Myra, in modern-day Turkey. St. Nicholas was known for his generosity and compassion towards the poor and needy. He became the patron saint of children and one of the most popular figures associated with gift-giving.

Over time, the tradition of Christmas gift-giving spread throughout Europe, and different cultures added their own customs and practices. In Germany, for example, the tradition of placing gifts under the Christmas tree originated in the 16th century. In England, gift-giving was common during the medieval period, and it became more elaborate during the Victorian era.

Today, Christmas gift-giving is a global tradition and an integral part of the Christmas season. It brings joy and happiness to both the giver and the receiver and symbolizes the spirit of love, generosity, and goodwill.

The Roman Connection

When it comes to the origins of Christmas gift-giving, the Romans play a significant role. The ancient Romans had a festival called “Saturnalia,” which was celebrated in late December. During this festival, people exchanged gifts as a symbol of good luck and prosperity for the upcoming year.

Saturnalia was a time of feasting, merriment, and gift-giving. It was a celebration of the winter solstice and honored the Roman god Saturn. During this festival, people engaged in various activities such as gaming, singing, and dancing.

Gift-giving was an essential part of Saturnalia, and it was common for people to exchange small tokens of appreciation with their friends, family, and even their servants. These gifts could be anything from candles to small figurines or even food items.

The concept of giving gifts during Saturnalia may have influenced the practice of gift-giving during the Christmas season. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and Christmas became an established holiday, the tradition of giving presents continued. However, the focus shifted from honoring pagan gods to celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.

So, while the modern tradition of Christmas gift-giving may not have originated directly from the Romans, their festival Saturnalia certainly played a role in shaping the holiday customs we know today.

Historical Evidence

There is limited historical evidence to suggest that the Romans gave presents at Christmas. The celebration of Christmas as we know it today is heavily influenced by Christian traditions, which developed several centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. Therefore, there are no direct references to gift-giving during the Roman era.

However, the Romans did exchange gifts during other festivals and celebrations throughout the year. For example, during the festival of Saturnalia, which was held in late December, it was customary to exchange small gifts and tokens of goodwill. This festival was a time of feasting, merriment, and generosity.

Additionally, the Romans celebrated the festival of Sigillaria on December 23rd, during which children received small clay or wax figurines as gifts. This practice may have influenced later European traditions of giving toys or figurines to children at Christmas.

Pros Cons
The Roman festival of Saturnalia involved gift-giving. There are no direct references to gift-giving at Christmas in Roman historical records.
The festival of Sigillaria included the giving of small figurines, which may have later influenced Christmas gift-giving traditions. Christian traditions heavily influenced the modern celebration of Christmas, and most historical references to gift-giving date from after the fall of the Roman Empire.

In conclusion, while there is some evidence to suggest that the Romans exchanged gifts during certain festivals, there is no conclusive historical evidence to prove that gift-giving was specifically associated with Christmas during the Roman era.

Gift-Giving Traditions in Ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, gift-giving was an important aspect of social and political life. Romans believed that the exchange of gifts strengthened personal relationships and expressed generosity and goodwill.

Gifts were given on various occasions, including birthdays, weddings, and religious festivals. They were often intended to symbolize social status and reinforce social hierarchies. For example, an emperor might give lavish gifts to senators and other high-ranking officials to solidify their loyalty and maintain their support.

The types of gifts exchanged in ancient Rome were diverse and varied depending on the occasion and the relationship between the giver and the recipient. Common gifts included jewelry, clothing, household items, and even slaves. These gifts were often exquisitely crafted and highly valued.

In addition to tangible gifts, Romans also exchanged intangible gifts, such as favors and services. For example, a wealthy Roman might offer financial assistance to a friend in need or provide political support to a fellow citizen in exchange for loyalty.

Gift-giving rituals were also an integral part of religious festivals in ancient Rome. During these festivals, worshippers would bring offerings to the gods in the form of food, wine, and other items. These gifts were seen as a way to honor the gods and gain their favor.

Overall, gift-giving in ancient Rome played a crucial role in social, political, and religious contexts. It was a way for individuals to demonstrate their wealth, status, and generosity, as well as to strengthen personal relationships and express goodwill towards others.

Roman Festivals and Celebrations

The Romans were known for their love of celebration and festivals. These festivals were an integral part of their culture and were held to honor various gods and mark important events.

One of the most famous Roman festivals was the Saturnalia, which was held in December. This festival celebrated the god Saturn and was a time for feasting, gift-giving, and general merriment. During Saturnalia, social norms were temporarily reversed, and slaves were allowed to partake in the festivities alongside their masters.

Another prominent Roman festival was the Lupercalia, which was held in February. This festival was dedicated to the god Lupercus and involved fertility rituals and purification ceremonies. The highlight of Lupercalia was the running of the Luperci, a group of priests, who would run through the city of Rome, striking women with thongs made from the skins of sacrificed animals to ensure fertility and protection from evil.

The Romans also celebrated the Floralia, a festival dedicated to the goddess Flora, which marked the beginning of spring and the blooming of flowers. This festival was characterized by colorful processions, dancing, and the wearing of floral garlands.

In addition, the Romans celebrated the Bacchanalia, a festival dedicated to the god Bacchus, which involved excessive drinking and revelry. The Vestalia was another important Roman festival, which honored the goddess Vesta and involved the purification and consecration of her temple.

These festivals were not only religious in nature but also served as a means of bringing the community together and providing entertainment. They were an important part of Roman life and were eagerly anticipated by the people.

Festival Month Dedicated to
Saturnalia December Saturn
Lupercalia February Lupercus
Floralia April Flora
Bacchanalia March Bacchus
Vestalia June Vesta

Influence on Modern Christmas Celebrations

The Romans’ celebration of Saturnalia and their tradition of giving presents during this festival have had a significant influence on the modern Christmas celebrations. The exchange of gifts during Saturnalia was a way for the Romans to show kindness and goodwill towards one another, just as many people do during the Christmas season. This tradition of gift-giving has persisted throughout history and is now a central part of the modern Christmas celebrations.

Furthermore, the Romans’ practice of decorating their homes with evergreen branches and wreaths has also influenced the way we decorate for Christmas. The use of evergreen plants in winter celebrations predates Christianity, but the Romans’ incorporation of these plants into Saturnalia festivities helped solidify their association with the holiday season. Today, many people still adorn their homes with evergreen wreaths, Christmas trees, and other festive greenery during the Christmas season.

In addition, the Roman celebration of Saturnalia was a time for feasting and merriment, much like our modern Christmas celebrations. During Saturnalia, the Romans would gather with friends and family to enjoy lavish meals, exchange gifts, and partake in various forms of entertainment. These traditions of festive feasting and spending time with loved ones continue to be important aspects of the Christmas holiday today.

Lastly, the Romans’ influence on the timing of Christmas cannot be overlooked. The early Christian church initially did not have a set date for celebrating the birth of Jesus. However, in the 4th century, Pope Julius I chose December 25th to commemorate the birth of Christ. Some speculate that this date was intentionally selected to coincide with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, in order to incorporate and Christianize existing traditions. As a result, the celebration of Christmas became closely tied to the same time of year as Saturnalia, and the two holidays have since influenced each other in various ways.

In conclusion, the Romans’ festivities and customs surrounding Saturnalia have significantly influenced modern Christmas celebrations. The tradition of gift-giving, the use of evergreen decorations, the emphasis on feasting and merriment, and even the timing of Christmas itself all bear the influence of the ancient Romans. Their cultural practices and traditions have seamlessly blended with Christian traditions over time, shaping the way we celebrate Christmas today.



Photo of author

Kristy Tolley

Kristy Tolley, an accomplished editor at TravelAsker, boasts a rich background in travel content creation. Before TravelAsker, she led editorial efforts at Red Ventures Puerto Rico, shaping content for Platea English. Kristy's extensive two-decade career spans writing and editing travel topics, from destinations to road trips. Her passion for travel and storytelling inspire readers to embark on their own journeys.

Leave a Comment