Gift giving has always taken place to some extent, but the extensive level of gift giving that we have grown used to did not begin until the 19th century, when mass produced goods became inexpensive enough for most people to afford purchasing gifts. Even as recently as the early 20th century, practical and homemade gifts were very popular.
Culturally, the giving of gifts has often gone hand in hand with an expectation of receiving something in return. During the medieval era, gift giving was largely limited to the rich nobility. Gifts of tapestries, gold and silver plate, and other exotic items would be exchanged between those in power as they negotiated treaties and betrothals. King Henry VII gave gifts of jewels and cloth-of-gold to his queen, Elizabeth of York, and an inscribed Book of Hours to his daughter, Margaret. However, these gifts were not given on December 25th. Preferred gift giving times were New Year's Day and special occasions, such as weddings and children's baptisms.
In addition to giving to those who could reciprocate, people of the middle ages gave gifts to the church and to the poor. Some of these gifts were purely charitable, but it was also believed that gifts of this sort helped reserved one's place in heaven and reduced time spent in purgatory. Gifts to the church were also made as part of people's last will and testament . . . just in case.
The desk that 140 years of US Presidents have sat behind in the Oval Office was a Christmas gift from Queen Victoria. Made from timbers of the British ship the HMS Resolute, the desk is one of the many historic Christmas gifts found in the White House and National Archives. Each President has also been challenged to give gifts to foreign rulers that match the creativity and value of what is received.
And you thought it was difficult to shop for your mother-in-law.
Christmas gift giving continues to evolve. In this age of abundance, many charitable organizations urge people to donate instead of purchasing gifts for friends and family who don't really need anything. Groups come together to purchase items for families in need or to perform acts of service. And we buy LOTS of gifts. The National Retail Federation estimates that over $465 billion will be spent on Christmas gifts this year, proving that this tradition isn't going anywhere.