Life Style

The very long history of the Christmas present

Today, young children are told that gifts reach them by sledge, brought from the white lands of Lapland, under the supervision of an outstanding logistician with a long beard. But we must set course for ancient Rome if we want to approach the origin of these gifts.

This is where the custom of Christmas gifts was born, which were then gifts… New Year’s gifts, New Year’s gifts. “This name refers to Strenia, the goddess of health. The gifts given to loved ones constituted offerings to attract a favorable future ”, recalls the sociologist and ethnologist Martyne Perrot (1).

Strennae and gifts have long cohabited

Obviously, for Christians, the Christmas gift refers to the presentation of the offerings of the shepherds and the Magi to the baby Jesus. He also comes to remind believers that on this special night, God gave himself to them. However, until the second half of the XIXe century, New Year’s gifts, to offer to loved ones on December 31 or 1er January, continue to coexist with the Christmas present. Some department stores themselves, which have done so much to spread the custom of end-of-year gifts, published only New Year’s catalogs.

→ DOSSIER. Christmas, Christian feast and traditions

“If the latter ended up being reserved exclusively for postmen or janitors, in gratitude for the service rendered, if the end-of-year festivities were refocused on Christmas, it is because the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy of the time made this feast a celebration for the secular part of the family ”, Martyne Perrot analysis.

Restoring family ties

Since then, many changes have taken place. “For a long time, in the lower classes in particular, the gift was often limited to a beautiful red apple then to an orange, sometimes supplemented with barley sugar”, traces the historian François Walter (2). Then, with the Thirty Glorious Years and the American influence, Christmas gradually poured into mass consumption, until the overdose.

“The gifts, which are exchanged including between adults, are now part of a give-and-take ritual, an opportunity to show – sometimes in the bidding – that we are capable of lavishness”, considers this Swiss researcher.

“They contribute to the restoration of family ties, with donation and counter-donation, continues Martyne Perrot. Exchanges which, following an unspoken grammar, make it possible to express the intensity of the feelings that one carries to the other and the greater or lesser proximity of kinship. “

An offering to those who will survive us

Still, she insists, this party is today “Above all that of the child, unconsciously invested with special powers”. Because, alongside its religious dimension, Christmas retains part of the “magic” that prevailed in the days of the Roman New Year’s gifts. “All these gifts are like an offering to those who will survive us and who are in a way the guarantors of our future”, she interprets, with reference to the work of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

In its extension, François Walter sees in the giving of gifts “A survival in this belief that there is a link between children and the afterlife”. This is why, he believes, that, in mirror image, “They are made to believe that these presents arrive mysteriously, brought to them by an external character, which varies according to the place and the time: Saint Nicolas, Father Christmas, and even the Child Jesus, called Christkindel in the Alsatian and German traditions “.


The toy market

♦ The turnover of the toy sector in France in 2019 amounted to 3.5 billion euros.

♦ 219 million toys were sold, at an average price of € 16.

♦ In 2019, toys are primarily purchased in specialized stores (36%), supermarkets and hypermarkets (31%) and on the Internet (20%).

♦ Imported toys come, for 55% of them, from China.


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