While you’re wallowing in gifts and possibly debt from buying them, remember that the partying, gift-giving season most likely started with the Roman’s Saturnalia, a celebration of agricultural bounty in honor of the god Saturn, and quite possibly co-mingled with a celebration of the solstice from earlier times since the dates of the celebration fell between Dec 17-23rd.
Several other religious celebrations also mark the end of the year with gift-giving, such as the Jewish festival of lights Hanukkah or the Hindu celebration of Pancha Ganapati in honor of Lord Ganesha. So the end of year tradition was well-established before Santa Claus took over.
But it was the Romans who really got into making sacrifices and wild partying, followed by private gift-giving. In their effusive generosity, the Romans treated even slaves as equals during these celebrations. Generally, the gifts were of small value such as candles, figurines, and gag gifts. Apparently, the lowlier the gift, the stronger the bond of friendship it represented. Some bosses often gave a gratuity to their clients or employees to help them purchase their gifts—the first version of the Christmas bonus.
As in everything, the Christian church usurped this holiday and made it about the Magi and the gifts to the Christ child. For good measure, they later threw in the tales of Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop and gift-giver, so the pagan holiday became about gifts and goodwill toward men.
And then along came the poem about “The Night Before Christmas” and Santa handing out goodies to good children, and the novella by Dickens of A Christmas Carol telling us all to be good to our neighbors, and the merchants jumped in with both feet and marketed the heck out of gift-giving.
Did you enjoy your Saturnalia?