The Holiday Conundrum; or the irony of gift-giving

To go along with last year’s rant about holiday shoppers and their rather un-Jesus-like behavior, I thought I’d share this year’s thoughts I have about gift-giving during Christmas. To be honest, I don’t exchange presents anymore. My financial situation has made it impractical for several years, although I used to buy presents anyway. I’d love to buy for my kids, but the money just isn’t there, and neither is the credit card. Fortunately, they are old enough to understand economics now that they are adults.

I’m currently in a romantic relationship with a man who buys gifts, yet stresses about spending money, so I started pondering this phenomenon. Why do people feel compelled to spend hundreds of dollars (that they often don’t have) on friends and family once a year? After doing a little research, it would seem the practice started with the Roman festival Saturnalia, which was celebrated on December 17. According to Wikipedia:

The Sigillaria on 19 December was a day of gift-giving.[58] Because gifts of value would mark social status contrary to the spirit of the season, these were often the pottery or wax figurines called sigillaria made specially for the day, candles, or “gag gifts”, of which Augustus was particularly fond.[59] Children received toys as gifts.[60] In his many poems about the Saturnalia, Martial names both expensive and quite cheap gifts, including writing tablets, dice, knucklebones, moneyboxes, combs, toothpicks, a hat, a hunting knife, an axe, various lamps, balls, perfumes, pipes, a pig, a sausage, a parrot, tables, cups, spoons, items of clothing, statues, masks, books, and pets.[61] Gifts might be as costly as a slave or exotic animal,[62] but Martial suggests that token gifts of low intrinsic value inversely measure the high quality of a friendship.[63] Patrons or “bosses” might pass along a gratuity (sigillaricium) to their poorer clients or dependents to help them buy gifts. Some emperors were noted for their devoted observance of the Sigillaria.[64]

In a practice that might be compared to modern greeting cards, verses sometimes accompanied the gifts. Martial has a collection of poems written as if to be attached to gifts.[65][66] Catullus received a book of bad poems by “the worst poet of all time” as a joke from a friend.[67]

Gift-giving was not confined to the day of the Sigillaria. In some households, guests and family members received gifts after the feast in which slaves had shared.[48]1

From there, we go to the frankincense, myrrh and gold the Magi presented to baby Jesus; and a few millennia later, we have Black Friday, Cyber Monday, people going into debt, and in some cases, a “little” crazy ( to buy their loved ones gifts. Americans pride themselves on how they have more civilized mores. And yet, they cling to a tradition started by a society who owned slaves, assassinated their leaders and philosophers, and could be considered imperialists. I’m talking about the Romans, although it would appear that the Christmas ornament didn’t fall from the tree.

As a culture, Americans have given the holiday season its own spin. We, the people, go broke and create stress for ourselves to show our admiration for others. We abuse strangers, literally, while shopping for that perfect present for that special someone. We use gifts as a form of power and preference according to how much we spend per person. We only buy for those who will give to us. At the same time, the receivers are often ambivalent and ungracious about what they received. And yet, we acknowledge that Christmas is supposed to be about peace, love, and giving freely. Ironic, isn’t it?

Perhaps we, as individuals, need to rethink our relationship to gift-exchanging/giving and why we participate in what often seems like utter madness. And how, if we are going to participate in an exchange, we can do so with the sentiments behind the holiday. Maybe then our gifts will make more sense and we’ll be a little kinder to each other as we shop.

Stay tuned for future blog posts on gift-giving and other conundrums on the run-up to Christmas 2012.

1. “Saturnalia,” Wikipedia, accessed May 213, 2018,

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