As common as the exchange of gifts at this time of year has become, the origins of this sometimes-burdensome tradition are actually anything but. Beginning with the proverbial Three Kings—who were neither three (according to Orthodox tradition, they were 12) nor kings—monarchs and their courtiers have for centuries shaped our notions of largesse and plenty with their regal displays of holiday extravagance.
The Medici of Florence took their cue quite literally from the Wise Men. Every fifth Feast of the Epiphany (or “la Befana”), members of that illustrious clan would organize the “Cavalcade of the Magi,” a pageant in which they and other Florentine nobles donned costumes of fantastic Oriental splendor and, swathed in silk turbans, jeweled brocades, and ermine, made their “pilgrimage” from the Palazzo della Signoria to the Church of San Marco. Having impressed the public with this solemn procession, the Medici, behind palace walls, abandoned themselves to an elaborate spectacle of gift giving. Grand Duke Cosimo II was particularly fond of this feast, and his choice of presents, which was carefully studied, usually blended staggering opulence with a certain vulgarity—and did not always aim to please. Once, for instance, Cosimo gave a court musician an onion, then a popular treatment for deafness; and a tipsy priest once received from the sovereign an enormous flagon of water. Duke Ferdinando Gonzaga of Mantua, in 1620, played a somewhat more generous joke on his Medici wife, Caterina: Five plain terra-cotta jars—each labeled with a moral precept hinting at its contents—contained a rosary, a clock, a jeweled flower, a gold chain, and (in the final jar inscribed with the words, “I have written that which I have written and I do not go back on my word”) a promissory note for a massive and priceless jeweled collar called a gargantiglia.
The Italian fondness for pageantry and games found its way to the English court as well, in the form of the masque. The first of these was staged for the pleasure of Henry VIII in 1511—an especially extravagant year for the king, who gave gifts totaling £800, or nearly $400,000 in today’s currency. The 12 days of feasting, inaugurated with roasted swans and a rosemary-crowned boar’s head, culminated on Twelfth Night with quantities of spiced ale and with the king—in disguise and accompanied by 11 courtiers—entering the hall and asking the ladies in the audience, by turns, to dance. This promiscuity was perhaps abetted by the fact that Queen Catherine had discharged her highest duty less than a week before, giving birth to a son on New Year’s Day—the time for exchanging gifts. Henry, well pleased with this Yuletide offering, named the child after himself and issued a proclamation extending the celebrations. The heir, however, did not last much longer than the festivities: The prince died seven weeks later.
Another tiding of joy came 21 years later, when Anne Boleyn (heretofore excluded from Christmas courts) became pregnant after making too merry with Henry in private. Though the Virgin Queen, their daughter, would not keep Christmas so merrily as her father, she kept it well. Elizabeth was as frugal as her father was profligate, and she seldom dined in public, owing in part to her bad teeth, which allowed her to chew only with difficulty. Christmas was an exception: Then, she gave free rein to her purse, indulging her passion for theater, as well as for the presence of male courtiers, who were induced to abandon their families for the holidays in favor of their queen. Few dared to depart, whiling their time with card games, dancing, and endless plays. Elizabeth was fond of the latter; Ben Jonson was regularly detained for Christmas, and William Shakespeare hurriedly wrote Twelfth Night in 1601 for performance at court. Guests were expected to give grandly to Her Majesty, who would reciprocate according to her pleasure. Despite court rivalries for Elizabeth’s favor, not all royal gifts were to be envied: In 1586, Mary Stuart, a symbol for Catholics who wished to see a monarch of their faith returned to the English throne, received from her Tudor cousin a truly one-of-a-kind present: a warrant of execution for treason. Of course, this Christmas wish did not officially arrive until February, when Mary was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle. But it was the thought that counted.
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