The tradition of gifts seems
to have started with the gifts that the wise men
(the Magi) brought to Jesus. As recounted in the Bible's book of Matthew,
"On coming to the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they
bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and
presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh."
No one was really in the habit of exchanging elaborate gifts until late in the 1800s.
The Santa Claus story, combined with a retailing phenomenon that has grown
since the turn of the century, has made gift giving a central focus
of the Christmas tradition.
Gift giving was popular in the
Victorian era. Poorer classes looked for
inspiration from magazine articles that gave step-by-step instructions
on how to make Christmas presents such as candy, a simple toy or a
pin cushion. The homemade gifts were greatly prized by the
Victorians There were penny bazaars for people who weren't creative.
During the late-Victorian era, the rich purchased luxury goods
via mail-order catalogs.
Christmas was a time for
giving in the Victorian era.
Queen Victoria encouraged the rich to give parcels of food, drink
and money to the poor in their the parish ~ traditionally on Boxing Day,
the day following Christmas in Great Britain. "A Christmas Carol", by
Dickens, was popular in Victorian Britain, and by reminding the rich that
Christmas wasn't all fun and games for the poor, it encouraged them
to give generously to the needy.
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After the big holiday
meal, there were crackers to be pulled, games to
be played, carols to be sung around the piano, skits to be put on,
and dancing. Cordials or punch would then be served and Christmas
would be done for another year.
The Twelfth Night on January 6th signalled the close
of Christmas and used to be a time for boisterous revelry.
Queen Victoria banned them altogether in the 1870s when she felt
the revelry was getting out of hand. The traditional Twelfth Night Cake,
packed with fruits and spices and covered in thick icing, was
also threatened until someone had the idea to move the baked
ritual to Christmas Day.