Turning Year: Bishop revered for his acts of charity

A Victorian uncle brings Christmas gifts.
A Victorian uncle brings Christmas gifts.

While the jolly old elf prepares for his marathon courier run on Christmas Eve, this is a delicate time for his representatives. The youngsters visiting Santa in stores, garden centres and Christmas fairs suspect he isn’t the real deal — but still they hope that he’s going to bring them presents.

In Santa’s ancestry there’s a real-life giver of gifts to the needy: Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century Bishop revered for his acts of charity. While hundreds of English churches are named after the saint, his feast day which falls today passes without much fuss. It’s a different story in some European countries where St Nicholas rides out on a white horse to bring presents to children who’ve been good.

In nineteenth-century New York, Nicholas was re-invented to focus minds on home, children and buying the newly available mass-produced gifts. Writers and artists took the customs of Dutch and German settlers, added a few dashes of Nordic folklore, and ta-dah! Santa Claus.

In England we had a much older figure that personified the season. Wearing a holly crown and long, hooded robe, Old Father Christmas carried a wassail bowl, Yule log, or fir tree. No sack of presents for him, and no red suit either — his robe was green, blue, brown, or white. His was the adults’ ideal Christmas, a good time with plenty to eat and drink.

Gifts and gratuities

It’s hard to believe, but Christmas presents are a relatively new idea. Until the1840s gifts were given at New Year, and then only between adults.

The old tradition declined as people took to the decorated fir tree, a German custom made popular by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The new Christmas tree had a display of small presents beneath its branches.

At first these Christmas gifts were only for children, although that soon changed. However, the new customs were confined to the well-to-do. Most people couldn’t afford a fir tree, let alone presents.

In fact, plenty of children in the first half of the twentieth century knew exactly what would turn up in their Christmas stocking — a few sweets, an orange and a handful of nuts.

The idea of hanging up a stocking for Santa probably came from Europe, where it’s St Nicholas who fills them up. First reported from northern England in the 1860s, this custom didn’t catch on elsewhere for another 20 years.

Gifts for services rendered were expected on St Stephen’s Day, December 26. This began in the seventeenth century, when employers used to drop coins into a moneybox for their apprentices or servants to share out on the 26th. By the eighteenth century tradesmen, and others such as clerks, watchmen and bellringers, were in on the act. The gift could be in kind; bakers might give their employees a plum cake.

Although actual boxes were no longer involved, these gratuities were still called Christmas boxes. By late Victorian times the custom was so widespread that St Stephen’s Day was renamed Boxing Day.

Today the giving and receiving of presents has become an important – many would say far too important — part of the festival. But there’s more to Christmas than that. There are many simple things that make the season special, so don’t get caught up in the madness. Make time to enjoy the things that matter most to you.