The Tradition of Gift Giving Goes Back to Ancient Rome
Saturnalia, held in mid-December, is an ancient Roman pagan holiday honoring the agricultural god Saturn. Because of when the holiday occurred—near the winter solstice—Saturnalia celebrations are the source of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas, such as wreaths, candles, feasting and gift-giving.
How the Romans Celebrated Saturnalia
During Saturnalia, work and business came to a halt. Schools and courts of law closed, and the normal social patterns were suspended.
People decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery, and shed their traditional togas in favor of colorful clothes known as synthesis. Even enslaved people did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them.
Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.