When Rome was founded, it became customary to give gifts to loved ones, friends, co-workers and even strangers as a token of gratitude, sympathy and generosity.
Christmas gift exchange, history and origin
Celebrations of the birth of the Sun – Natalis Solis Invictus – took place on December 25. It was Emperor Aurelian who, in 274, assimilated the cult of the Sun, of little importance among the ancient Romans, to the “Sol Invictus” of the Syrian religion and established a new cult.
The Romans, with time, ended up imposing this god on the other divinities, until they ended up, by syncretism, in a monotheistic religion.
Birth of Mithra, the Iranian god of the sky and light
The birth of Mithras, the Iranian god of the sky and the light and later tutelary of the Roman legions, is also commemorated.
His birth from a virgin in a cave took place on December 25, the winter solstice and was venerated on Sunday, the day of the conquering solar rock, where shepherds were the first to address their prayers to the naked child, covered only by a Phrygian cap.
After his death and resurrection, he became a messenger god, an intermediary between man and the good god of light and a leader of the forces of justice against the dark forces of the evil god.
Cult of Mithras
The religion of Mithras, although of Persian origin, became dominant in Rome, especially among the soldiers. After the 25th, the feast of the Sigillaria, or of the terracotta seals, which was a pagan Roman feast, began.
Once the Saturnalia was over, it was dedicated, above all, to giving gifts to children: for example, rings, terracotta dolls, seals, writing tablets, dice, small objects, coins and bags full of marbles!
Children had a lot of fun during these days, houses were decorated with green plants and candles were lit to celebrate the return of light.
December 31 was the eve of Strenna. The end of the solar year is celebrated with fires and great merriment. It is a cathartic and innovative celebration in which a sacrifice is made to the goddess Strenia, under whose protection the new year begins.
The first is the day of “openings” in honor of the Sabine goddess Strenia, from which the word strenar comes because on this day it is customary to give gifts to each other. People brought gifts and made sacrifices to the goddess at her temple, which was located at the edge of a sacred forest near Rome.
At first, the gift was quite symbolic and consisted of fragrant branches cut from the trees of the sacred forest of Strenia. Later, honey, bronze coins, nuts and wine in vases and other small containers began to be given as gifts.
Although the gifts acquired material value, they always retained their magical or religious symbolism, as they were given in the name of the goddess Strenia, in anticipation of a new cycle or year full of blessings, achievements, abundance and luck.
It is said that some Roman leaders, such as the first emperor Octavian Augustus and later his successors, gave coins to the people during the Strenia or New Year celebrations.
The great Roman general Scipio, who was called “the African” for his heroic campaigns and military victories against Carthage, a legendary city that made history in ancient times and still exists in the North African country known as Tunisia, also had this custom.
Festival dedicated to Dionysus
For the Greeks, this feast is dedicated to Dionysus from the night before, when the year is said goodbye. Men disguise themselves as women or horned animals, which is why St. Pacian, bishop of Barcelona in the 4th century, lamented that Christians celebrated the “Kalendas Ianuarias”.
St. Isidore of Seville himself condemned these feasts:
“There are those who, because of the aforesaid pagan feasts, profane themselves on the same day with the observation of omens, make shouts and dances, committing another more clumsy iniquity, because those of one and the other sex come together forming a gang and the mob of impoverished spirit is excited with wine.”
The pagan custom of giving gifts
Recall that the pagan custom of making gifts and giving presents or gifts in honor of Strenia continued to be practiced at the beginning of the Christian era until the Church became an official part of the Roman Empire.
For their part, the bishops, after failing in all their attempts to eradicate it along with the rest of the expressions of pagan culture, agreed to maintain the custom of exchanging gifts but ordered to do it a week earlier, on the feast of Christmas or celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Thanks to this, this beautiful custom of giving and receiving gifts was preserved to this day and then spread throughout Christianized Europe and, later, to all other countries.
Public and private officials in Spain have traditionally been the ones who, at the time of congratulating the beneficiaries of their work for Christmas, demanded a small economic or material retribution.
The same happened, by extension, with children, who used to ask their parents and neighbors for Christmas or Epiphany. A custom of yesteryear that today is not only maintained but has been made official by labor legislation for the benefit of all workers.
There are other ways of reaching the Christmas bonus in the so-called Christmas Raffles and Christmas Baskets. The Christmas Raffle is a resource of chance, a playful pastime that in our culture has not ceased to be practiced since the celebration of the Roman Saturnalia.
Christmas baskets are a sumptuous and indispensable gift for the holidays: nougat, dried fruits, preserves, wine, champagne, coffee, sausages, ham and, among them, a box of Havana cigars.
It corresponds to an ancient custom known as the Sportola of the ancient Romans, which has survived to the present day. Unintentionally, it was related to the economic crisis.
In the 1960s, instead of filling the baskets with these gifts, they were offered to the needy as “Christmas gifts”. Baskets are, without a doubt, the star gift of the Christmas season.