The custom of giving gifts this time of year was established long before Christians appropriated December 25th as Christ’s birthday. The Romans exchanged presents during Saturnalia (Dec. 17th-23rd). They gave clay figures and candles to friends and loved ones in celebration of the return of the sun. Fruits and sweet cakes ensured a prosperous year. The gift of copper coins bearing the image of Janus brought good luck. (Janus was the two-faced new year god who looked forward and backward at the same time.) Holly twigs with sweets attached were especially popular gifts.
It’s believed the tradition of giving holly during Saturnalia grew out of the Roman practice of bestowing strenae on New Years. This custom dates from 747 B.C. when Tatius entered Rome in triumph on New Years Day and was given branches of vervain— the herb of grace—cut from the goddess Strenia’s sacred grove. Tatius declared that, henceforth, Jan 1st would be celebrated with the exchange of gifts. This Roman custom degenerated over time in Britain until it became one of handing out bribes to officials. It was abolished there in 1290 A.D.
During the twelve-day winter solstice celebration, pagans decorated trees with food and symbols to entice the return of the tree spirits. Food and milk were set out as a thank you to the land spirits for the gift of life they bestowed. Vikings offered presents to their chieftains during Yule. Chieftains exchanged elaborately ornamented weapons and parcels of land.
Until the rise in popularity of St. Nicholas, Christians exchanged gifts on Epiphany. The observance of Epiphany—when the wise men presented gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus--dates from the 3rd century while Christ Mass (Christmas) dates from the 4th century.
Since the 12th century, the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle--patron saint of architects and builders—has been celebrated on December 21st. The story goes that, while traveling in India, St. Thomas encountered King Gundoforus who asked him to build a palace.
accepted and the king went away. Instead of constructing the edifice with the money the king left him, however, St. Thomas gave it to the poor. St. Thomas
When Gundoforus wrote to ask how the palace was progressing, St. Thomas sent a message back telling him it was ready to be roofed. The king sent more money and, as before, St. Thomas gave it to the poor. Eventually the king returned, only to discover there was no palace. When he demanded to know why, St. Thomas said Gundoforus couldn’t see his palace because it had been built in heaven.
For this reason, St. Thomas Day became associated with charitable giving in Britain. Wheat was cooked and distributed to the poor so they could make frumenty—a kind of porridge from which plum pudding evolved. Widows and other destitute women known as “mumpers” went begging with two-handled pots into which they received the wheat. (According to Franicis Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a mumper was a genteel beggar.) This custom became known as “going a’Thomasing.” It also was called “going a’gooding” since grateful recipients wished their benefactors all the goodness of the season.
According to Robert Chamber’s Book of Days (1862), a’Thomasing still existed in 1857. Poor women would call at the principle houses in the parish and collect pennies or provisions toward Christmas dinner for their families. In exchange, they gave sprigs of holly, mistletoe, or handspun yarn.