The history of holiday gift giving begins with the first Christmas, when Baby Jesus was given gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh by his visitors in the manger--the Three Kings of the Orient. Of course, Jesus felt a bit awkward since he didn't have gifts for the Kings, and had to pretend that his gifts for them were still in the mail. The uncomfortable silence ended when the owner of the manger told the Kings to scram since they weren't paying customers, but the tradition remains--gift giving has become a regular part of the Christmas holidays.
Later on, in Germany, a guy named Santa Claus started breaking into homes to leave presents for the kids in exchange for milk and cookies (milk and cookies being valid currency in medieval Germany) as well as some food for his reindeer. When the demand for presents became too pressing, he'd hire a gang of elves to work in his toy factory (elves being very cheap labor at the time, since they hadn't unionized and really didn't need much in the way of food) and before long had a massive worldwide operation that netted billions worth of cookies. Santa had a policy of only doing business with kids who were "good" that year, which explained why incidents of juvenile delinqency dropped markedly during the September through December quarter. Until his sleigh was short down by Soviet pilots in the 1980s for violating their airspace, Santa had a good thing going. But the gift tradition continued--with parents handing out presents instead of red-suited strangers.
Jews had for a number of years avoided this tradition, as they dont' celebrate Christmas (though if I were Jewish? I'd totally still celebrate it! Colored lights and food and stuff--can't give that up!) and instead celebrate a holiday that rejoices in having found energy savings that one time a while back. Understandably, though, Jewish parents found their kids' cries of "why do my goy friends get presents this time of year and all I get to do is play dreidel and eat chocolate coins?" rather unbearable. So it was then decided that each night of Hannukah the Jews would give their kids presents too.
So this is why this time of year we find ourselves in the holiday stress of determining who to buy gifts for, and it has become a Machiavellian task--do I get something for my co-workers? What do I get for the guy/girl I have been dating for only a few weeks? Is it wrong to get someone a $30 gift certificate when they got me a $40 gift certificate? Fortunately I have a solution . . . stay tuned for the next post!