Festive Gift-Giving Craze in Central Eastern Europe Explained

To: Mum, From: Nicky – is what you may find written on your Christmas present, for example, in the UK or the USA. However, Central Europeans are adamant that the gifts have a more otherwordly origin. So what is it about all this gift-giving tradition?

Stylish christmas gift in hands under christmas tree with lights. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Woman in cozy sweater putting wrapped christmas present in atmospheric festive room
Photo: sonyachny / stock.adobe.com

Apart from many heart-warming traditions, merry carol singing, and time spent with family and friends, many of us tend to frantically search the web or run around the malls in search of the perfect gift. And, I guess, equally, many of us had that moment of reflection at some point during our lives when we stopped, dog-tired and void of any inventive ideas (can I really give him socks for the third year in a row?), and cursed whoever came up with this draining custom. If you care to know, there, actually, is a pretty valid explanation behind it.

The Romans already did it!

An article would not be complete without the Romans who had done it all before. When it comes to the winter celebrations of the solstice, the Romans held a big festival of Saturnalia, in honor of their deity, Saturn – patron of agriculture. Celebrations took place between the 17th and 23rd of December and included gift-giving (actually, Egyptians are claimed to be the most ancient civilization known to practice the gifting custom, so if it is about gifts in general – blame them!) Romans took the Saturnalia pretty seriously and put their hearts into partying, sacrifice, eating, and… free speech. Some sources say that over those days, slaves enjoyed equal status to their masters and were free to speak up.

Start of the Gift-giving New Era

Then enters Christianity. The idea behind most Christian holidays is “if you can’t beat them – join them!” Firmly established pagan traditions (such as celebrating the winter solstice, which was practiced by virtually all civilizations) were simply given a valid, Christian explanation and revamped to fit the doctrine. Christmas has a theologically lovely justification. In their calculations, since Christ is the Light of God, what better moment to commemorate His birthday than on the day of the longest night in the year when the Sun starts gradually winning over the winter darkness? And so, Christmas was adopted, but – believe it or not – gifts were no longer that important.

New gifting hero

The attention of the gift-giving tradition was shifted to December 6, when the Church remembers the generosity of the 4th-century bishop, Saint Nicholas of Myra. On this day, Christian children would be more likely to receive gifts. But it was not enough. Someone cleverly remembered that the Three Wise Men also brought Jesus gifts, so additional goodies were handed to the happy receivers on the day of the Epiphany of the Lord (January 6). This kind of made Christmas lack that wow effect and Saint Nicholas had to up his game by making another round-the-world trip. Although, this is not the rule.

Birthday Boy

You might be surprised to learn that in the majority of the Central European countries, the gifts are brought by the Birthday Boy himself! Yup, Baby Jesus is the one who traditionally visited the children of the region in the countries which were lucky to enjoy their independence for the longest period of time. Baby Jesus is still busy leaving prezzies (which symbolize God’s grace, by the way) in Austria, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland.

Of course, it is not to say that all of these countries stick solidly to the Baby Jesus tradition. Many incorporate both or favor one over the other. In Poland, for example, the Baby Jesus (sometimes angels) tradition is strong in very few regions, with Saint Nicholas taking over and lending a helping hand to the newborn Christ. On the other hand, Czechia and Austria proudly emphasize that the tiny Savior gets out of His way to put smiles on children’s faces.

24th or 25th?

In the vast majority of Central Europe, the gifts are unwrapped on Christmas Eve. Although, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Lithuania seem to favor gift-giving on Christmas Day, it is said that people tend to follow both traditions. Nevertheless, one could risk a conclusion that the Christmas Day gift-giving might be strongly connected to C.C. Moore’s influential poem, The Night Before Christmas, which changed the way we celebrate Christmas gifting forever.

From one generation to the next

Regardless of when the gifts are received or who brings them, Christmas is an important time in the region. A predominantly Christian region, people follow many small and large traditions connected to the time of year, saving them from being lost. And just how similar they are between the Three Seas States, yet so different from other regions of the world, only adds to their uniqueness and sense of community. This year, when you will be drowning under wrapping paper, frantically looking for scissors, take comfort in the thought that there is a point to your struggle – one rooted in your homeland’s history and culture.

Weronika Edmunds

Holder of a DPSI in English Law and an MBA, she believes in lifelong learning. Her passion for theatre shaped her sensitivity to the spoken and written word, leading her to become a creative copywriter. She lives for words and knows how to pour life into otherwise lifeless wording. She likes to repeat after M. Ondaatje: “Words, Caravaggio. They have a power.”

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