The New Year gift-giving tradition has a pre-historic root. Despite the 'Christmas presents' culture, 'gift giving' at New Year is still practiced in many parts of Europe, including France, Switzerland, Russia and Greece. In Europe it was prevalent even before Christ was born.
Today here in USA we are more used to gift-giving at Christmas, rather than the New Year's Day. Historically this owes its origin to the old customs of the German and Dutch settlers. The English and French dominated states though continued with the tradition of gift-giving on the New Year's Day for a long while. However, the combined German and Dutch influences, in time, caused this old tradition to be wiped out giving way to the present custom across America.
Long before the world came to accept January 1 as the secular New Year different people from different parts of the world would have different New Year timings. Yet there were some broad areas of convergence in their diverging customs. And gifts on this occasion is among them as are feast, and community revelry. The idea behind all this was, probably, to greet each other with something auspicious on the wake of the new year .
The Celtic-Teutonic Druids used to make a gift of their holy plant mistletoe at the beginning of the Year. Among the Romans such gifts were called 'strenae', a word said to be derived from the goddess of luck, Strenia. At first the gifts were branches from sacred trees meant for wishing recipients an auspicious New Year. Later objects like gilded nuts and coins bearing the imprint of Janus, the god with two faces to whom January was sacred.
Rome had also developed a custom of presenting gifts to the emperor. But later the spirit ceased to exist and a 'forced payment' replaced the 'gifts'. Courtesy, the power wielding Roman despots. It went on for some couple of centuries until the practice was forbidden by Pope Leo I the Great in 458.
English royalty, also began to force their subjects in the matter of New Year's gifts as early as the time of Henry III (1216-72). Queen Elizabeth was very watchful of the "who's and what's" of the giving and received great amounts in jewels and gold on New Year's Day. She systematized the practice to the extent of keeping descriptive lists of the gifts presented to her from all walks of life. However, following the splendor of Queen Elizabeth's reign, the practice declined. Finally, when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came into power, the custom stopped.
The New Year gift exchange was also a common practice among the ordinary English people until the Victorian regime. Gloves were a usual gift. Also popular were oranges stuck with clove, used to preserve and flavor wine. When the English had settled in America they brought in the tradition and continued to exchange gifts and presents at the New Years. So did the French. Thus we find, the predominantly French, New Orleans continued with the New Year's practice for a long time. And in France even today gifts and greeting cards are presented on New Year's Day.
In Scotland, where New Year's is the biggest feast of the year, gifts were solicited by bands of boys who went from door to door begging for money and food and singing the ditty:
" I wish you a Merry Christmas
And a Happy New Year,
A pocketful of money
And a cellar full of beer,
And a good fat pig
To serve you all the year."
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