‘Tis the season for giving for people who celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Islam’s Eid al-Fitr. In the western world, the exchange of gifts traces its origins to ancient Roman festivals celebrating the new year. Early gifts were simple, sometimes twigs from a sacred grove to ensure good luck. Other gifts might be vegetables to honor a fertility goddess. Gifts during the northern European pagan Yule celebration honored fertility deities with gifts made from wheat products, such as bread and alcohol. As Christianity spread, early church leaders tried to ban the custom, but it prevailed and sharing gifts was incorporated into the holiday.
Modern Christmas gift-giving customs date from 19th-century Victorian England. The Victorians transformed the tradition into an elaborate affair, often with cobweb parties. Each family member was assigned a color, led to a room crisscrossed with yarn of various colors, and then required to follow the maze of yarn to find a gift tied at the end of their color yarn. The inedible Christmas pie was another tradition. Treats were hidden in a bowl of grain; after dinner, guests gathered around the pie and dipped a spoon into the grain. The gifts they unearthed were theirs to keep. From there, it wasn’t much of a leap to allow St. Nicholas, later known as Santa Claus, to bring gifts to stuff in stockings hanging on the fireplace mantle.
If you’re in the gift-giving mode, visit the Holiday Book Mart from 2 – 4 p.m. on December 11 at the Fairfax City Regional Library. More than a dozen local authors will sell and autograph their work. Other special holiday celebrations this weekend include live performances by student musicians, plus crafts and refreshments from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Centreville Regional Library and from Noon to 2 p.m. at the Lorton Library.