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Traditions of holiday gift giving

An English Rose in Georgia

POSTED: January 6, 2018 7:30 a.m.
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Lesley Francis grew up in London, England, and made Georgia her home in 2009.

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Now that the holidays are behind us and the gifts unwrapped and hopefully enjoyed (or returned!), I thought it would be interesting to look at the tradition of gift giving, which is the focus of many winter holiday celebrations.

The giving of presents has origins in both religious and secular holidays, both of which have helped shape how we celebrate today.

Let’s start with the obvious recent celebration – Christmas and the worldwide tradition of giving gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. From a religious standpoint, Jesus Christ was of course a gift from our creator, and gifting others around Christmastime can be traced back to the Three Kings or Wise Men who visited Jesus after his birth.

The three gifts were frankincense, a fragrance involved in worship, gold, which has always been a valued form of wealth, and myrrh, which is an incense normally associated with funerals.

Another giver of gifts was St. Nicholas, a fourth-century saint who had a reputation for giving gifts in secret and helping the needy. On the feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6, children would leave food and drink for this saint, who would leave gifts in exchange for these treats.

This is why we still leave cookies and milk for Santa Claus today. Many countries, especially those in Northern Europe, still celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day on Dec. 6. There is more information at

The tradition of Secret Santa — a great idea that saves much angst and money when adopted by co-workers or extended family members — has its roots in Scandinavia, where Secret Santa is known as "Julklapp."

This word is a compound of "Jul," which means "Christmas," and "klapp," which means "knocking." In Scandinavian countries, tradition dictates that you knock loudly on the recipient’s door, then quickly open the door and throw the gift into the room or otherwise leave it behind without being seen.

This custom originates from the idea of Knecht Ruprecht, or "Servant Rupert," who wanders from house to house, giving out gifts in order to serve his master, St. Nicholas. Traditionally, instead of writing a name on the gift, a short and funny message is included – ideally a rhyming one – and then guests can work out which gift is meant for which person.

I have only recently found out about the "Dirty Santa" game, which is a variant on Secret Santa. Group members all bring an unlabeled gift within financial and other guidelines, but — unlike Secret Santa where personalized gifts are selected and wrapped for specific people — numbers are used.

People then draw a number, and then open and show off each gift. The second person can select another unwrapped gift or take the first gift of the original recipient. This continues so each player has two choices: to select a new wrapped gift or take someone else’s opened gift. However, players cannot just keep taking each other’s gift without that gift going to somebody else in between.

This system does mean that every participant ends up taking a present home, but I do not recommend it for young children. The thought of taking away an opened gift apparently belonging to my 3-year-old granddaughter is not an enticing one.

Of course, Christmas is not the only gift-giving holiday on the winter calendar. Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish celebration that commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Hanukkah means "dedication" in Hebrew.

Although money was traditionally given over the eight days of the holiday, today Jewish people usually give thoughtful and sweet gifts to each other and especially children at Hanukkah.

And let’s not forget Kwanzaa, an American holiday developed in 1966 that pays homage to traditions and cultural influences from Africa. The focus of Kwanzaa celebrations is family and the harvest, unity and faith.

Gift sharing is not the central part of this special holiday but are one of the seven symbols of Kwanzaa. Gifts are meant to symbolize the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by children.

I will leave you with a quote from Mother Teresa: "It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving."

Happy New Year and God bless America!

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