The Christmas season is the biggest gift-giving occasion for most people in the United States—even for those who aren’t religious. While there are certainly many exceptions among the country’s heterogeneous population, for most Americans, Christmas (including Christmas Eve) is the main event.
Christmas is celebrated around the world, but Christmas is not the major gift-giving day in many cultures.
Gift-giving in other cultures
In China and in other Chinese communities around the world, Chinese New Year (February 8 in 2016) is the biggest celebration lasting up to two weeks. Traditionally, red envelopes or packets are given to children or to unmarried young people by their older friends and relatives. The envelopes contain an amount of money that varies with the age of the child. The amount is important—odd numbers are reserved for funerals. Multiples of eight (which sounds like the word for “wealth”) and six (which sounds like “smooth”) are considered particularly lucky.
There are two important gift-giving seasons in Japan: Ochugen, in July, and Oseibo in December. During these two seasons the Japanese give gifts to relatives, teachers, doctors, customers and anyone to whom gratitude should be expressed.
In Islamic countries, including most of the Middle East, the major gift-giving holiday is Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan (July 5 in 2016). Traditionally, children receive gifts of money, and alms and gifts are given to the poor.
Both Hindus and Sikhs in India and all over the world celebrate the major two- or three-day festival of Diwali (the “Festival of Lights”), which usually occurs in October or November (October 30 in 2016). The gifts exchanged reflect joy and splendor. Fresh flowers, fireworks, new clothes, and offerings of traditional sweets are gifts associated with a typical Diwali celebration.
Even where Christmas is celebrated, the timing of gift-giving can vary. Here is just a small sampling of practices around the world.
Christmas: From St. Nicholas Day until “Three Kings Day”
In Germany, while gifts under the tree are exchanged at Christmas, the traditional day for a visit from Saint Nick is not Christmas, but the Feast of St. Nicholas (December 6). Pieces of candy and other treats are placed in the children’s shoes under their beds. In many parts of Poland, St. Nicholas Day is also the day when St. Nicholas brings gifts to children.
In fact, in many parts of Europe, the Christmas season begins on St. Nicholas Day. In eastern areas of France, such as Alsace-Lorraine, the tradition is to give children their gifts on St. Nicholas Day, reserving Christmas Day for religious services. In most parts of France, while Père Noël does arrive on Christmas Eve to bring gifts to children, adults may wait until New Year’s Day to exchange presents.
In Sweden, the Christmas season starts on St. Lucia’s Day (December 13). Traditionally, the eldest daughter of the house dresses as St. Lucia and brings her family coffee, rolls, and ginger biscuits. On Christmas Eve, the household gnome brings presents for children.
In Italy, gift giving traditionally doesn’t take place until the feast of the Epiphany on January 6 (the 12th day of Christmas), the date on which the three kings or magi brought gifts to the infant Jesus. And in Spain, Mexico, and some other Latin countries, while adults usually exchange presents on Christmas Eve, children usually have to wait until January 6, “Three Kings Day,” to get the bulk of their presents.
In Russia, the big day for many is New Year’s Day, rather than Christmas. Under Soviet rule, Christmas wasn’t celebrated and many of the traditions attached to Christmas gradually became associated with New Year’s—always a big holiday—instead.
It’s Not Always St. Nick
For many children in Italy, it is the “Christmas witch”, La Befana, who brings treats
In Sweden, the household gnome brings the presents
Good Russian children can expect a visit from Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and his granddaughter, Snegurochka