Friedrich Gedike on the Origin of Christmas Gifts (1784)

The Berlinische Monatsschrift is best known as the place of publication of Immanuel Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” Readers of this blog are likely to know it as well as the place where the question that Kant sought to answer was initially posed and where, a few months before Kant offered his answer, Moses Mendelssohn published his. It was a journal that, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, had close ties with the so-called “Wednesday Society,” a group of well-placed “friends of enlightenment” that met in secret to consider what might be done to advance the cause of enlightenment, both in Berlin and elsewhere.1 Those efforts were reflected in the Berlinische Monatsschrift in a variety of articles that examined the various prejudices that still reigned in Prussia despite the efforts of its enlightened monarch and his bureaucracy, a number of whom were members of the Wednesday Society. One example of these efforts was Friedrich Gedike’s 1784 discussion of the origins of the custom of giving gifts at Christmas.

Friedrich Gedike

Friedrich Gedike

Gedike was — along with Johann Erich Biester — a co-editor of the Berlinische Monatsschrift. His career, as Anthony La Vopa and has discussed, was defined by an enthusiasm for the then novel discipline of pedagogy and by a faith that it might provide a means for social reform.2 He studied theology and classical philosophy at the University of Frankfurt/Oder, went on to become a gymnasium director and, around the time of the publication of this article, began a career within the Prussian bureaucracy as an advisor on educational reforms.

His essay on the history of Christmas gifts is consistent with the broader strategy adopted by the Berlinische Monatsschrift as a way to advance the cause of public enlightenment. As Gedike explained in a postscript to an article by the philosopher Johann August Eberhard (which offered a detailed discussion of the origins of superstitions surrounding the “white woman” as an omen of death), the surest means of attacking superstition lay — not in ridiculing it — but rather in tracing its history.3 Gedike’s article on the custom of gift-giving at Christmas, which drew copiously from his acquaintence with Greek and Latin texts, did much the same.

The translation offered here is yet another of the texts from the Berlinische Monatsschrift that first appeared in English in the pages of The German Museum, a journal that (as previously discussed on this blog) attempted, at the dawn of the nineteenth century, to acquaint British readers with the German enlightenment. The initials “M. G.” stand at the close of the translation, indicating that the translator was Maria Geisweiler, the name that Countess Maria von Schulenburg adopted after her marriage to the émigré bookseller and publisher Constantine Geisweiler, one of the three editors of the journal. As I noted in an earlier post, Maria enjoyed some success as a translator with her efforts on behalf of the playwright Kotzebue.

I’ve known about Gedike’s article on Christmas gifts since becoming interested in the Berlinische Monatsschrift back at the end of the last millenium and first encountered the translation during my initial foray into the German Museum in the early years of this one. I confess that I find it difficult to know what to make of this text and even more difficult to understand the motivations of its author. Gedike’s display of erudition is so disproportionate to the object of his critique that it may be hard for present-day readers to decide whether he is a pedant or a prankster and the closing footnote, with its denunciation of Christmas carols as exercise in blasphemy, is likely to serve — if nothing else — as a reminder that the past is, indeed, a very different country.

But if Gedike is hard on Christmas carols, his account of the Saturnalia is tinged with a sense that are some illusions worth preserving:

The Saturnalia were an emblem of the golden age, when no distinction of rank divided man from man, while as yet perfect equality and freedom reigned among mankind, and there existed neither master nor slave: a delightful dream, the idea of which was well worth a seven days feast!

His invocation of that dream is immediately followed by a bitter passage on the short-sightedness of those “modern historians” who maintain

that the abolition of slavery is one of the effects of christianity, without recollecting, that there are Christian nations, who in America and the West-Indies use their slaves with greater barbarity and cruelty than the Romans and Greeks did theirs.

Gedike, a poor child from the provinces who managed to make a career for himself in Berlin thanks to the patronage networks that La Vopa has traced, remains loyal to the dream of a better world.  After noting how the early Christian’s hope that a new golden age might have begun with the birth of the Christ gave way to a dream of His “future second appearance,” he considers what dreams slaves might habor:

Whether, when the farce of the Saturnalia was over, the Roman slaves comforted themselves in like manner with a future golden age, I know not; but I really could wish the present negro slaves just such a delightful dream, to comfort them under the cruelty of their christian oppressors.

So, let me offer the transcription that follows as a seasonal gift to the readers of this blog, along with best wishes for the coming year. It has been hastily done and no doubt contains many errors (particularly in the references, which employ a style that is now rather alien), which I hope readers will point out. Lacking the necessary fonts, I’ve deleted a few Greek quotations and cut one lengthy Latin one, but I’ve tried to preserve as much of Gedike’s apparatus as possible — it is very much part of the style of the piece.

  1. See my introduction to James Schmidt, ed., What Is Enlightenment?: Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) and, more recently, James Schmidt, “Misunderstanding the Question: `What Is Enlightenment?’: Venturi, Habermas, and Foucault,” History of European Ideas 37:1 ( 2011): 43–52.
  2. See Anthony J. La Vopa, “The Politics of Enlightenment: Friedrich Gedike and German Professional Ideology,” The Journal of Modern History 62:1 (1990): 34–56 and, more generally, LaVopa, Grace, Talent, and Merit : Poor Students, Clerical Careers, and Professional Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Germany (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
  3. See Gedike, “Nachtrag zu der Legende von der weissen Frau,” Berlinische Monatsschrift, I (1783).

Gedike Article



MANY really surprising and singular customs have lost with us their particularity and oddness; from having been accustomed to them since our earliest infancy, their familiarity prevents us from seeing them in the same light as a stranger naturally must. In the history of travels into distant countries, the description of the customs and manners of an unknown nation has ever been the most interesting and entertaining to every reader. But it seldom strikes us, that we have ourselves a number of customs, both in religious and civil life, which in the same degree, or even more, raise the curiosity and astonishment of other nations, and other times. To trace the origin of such customs, however insignificant they may at first view appear, is perhaps not always a gratuitous amusement, an idle speculation, or useless curiosity; I am on the contrary convinced, that researches of this kind are often productive to a reflecting mind of results wholly unexpected, and lead to explanations that reflect light on a number of other ideas.

The custom of Christmas-gifts is as old as it is universal. It is generally accounted for, from the custom of presenting small gifts in the name of a new born child, to those children of a more advanced age, that brotherly love may from their earliest infancy grow up with them, perhaps much earlier than it otherwise might, and thus entwine them closer to each other. It is also imagined, the custom of Christmas gifts among christians originated with the pious idea of accustoming children from an early period to the love of Christ.

At present I will not say more of the propriety or impropriety of this pedantic or religious trifling, than that it appears to me an humiliation to human nature, to employ such pitiful tricks to draw forth the proper feelings and sentiments of the heart, and use children from so early an age to the selfish ideas of having their affections bought with gifts.

Still more insufficient is the derivation of this custom from the gifts, which the wise men of the east are said to have presented to the new born Messiah.

Without at present enquiring, whether the whole of this tradition, which has puzzled both geographers and astronomers, is an historical fact, or, as many criticising theologists themselves believe, a pious fable, it cannot be conceived that the gifts which those wise men brought to the new, born king of the Jews, according to the manners of the east, as a mark of their submission and homage, could be the foundation of gifts which afterwards, at the anniversary of his birth, should be made to children and other persons, as it were, from and in the name of Jesus Christ.

When I maintain that this custom is neither more nor less than the remains of a Heathen or Roman institution called Saturnalia, under another name, this can only appear unaccountable and wonderful to those who, unacquainted with antiquity, arc not aware how many customs in our civil, our judicial, and particularly our religious constitution, arc derived as an inheritance from this source. Many ideas unknown to pure original Christianity, have been borrowed from the Roman and Greek religions, but more particularly from the religious philosophy of the Alexandrian school, and incorporated with the theological system of Christianity. How much easier then to inherit customs that have become habitual, and of which sensual beings generally find it much harder to be divested, than of mere ideas. In fact, there appear numberless extraordinary similitudes between the festivity of the Roman Saturnalia, and our Christmas holidays; similitudes which appear even in the smallest trifles. The Saturnalia of the Romans happened exactly at the same time, and their rejoicings continued seven days, namely, from the 17th to the 24th of December.1 In the beginning, the Christmas holidays lasted the same number of days, but in process of time were reduced to four, and at length, probably in the eleventh century, to three.2 At the Saturnalia were distributed all kinds of small gifts, particularly to the slaves, and at no time were so much pains taken to behave in a mild and friendly manner to the household, and to procure them a couple of happy days at least during the year. During this feast they enjoyed a certain degree of liberty, and were excused from all labour. Just so did the primitive Christians conduct themselves towards their slaves during the Christmas holidays (Constitut. Apostol. 1. S. C. 33.) and to this day the common people never rejoice so much on any day during the year as at Christmas. Among the presents that were made was generally a wax candle,3 till now a customary appendage every where to the Christmas gifts for children and the lower classes. It was a custom at this feast to eat honey, as an emblem of the golden age, at which time we are told rivulets of milk and honey existed,4 and also because they considered Saturn as the discoverer of the honeycomb.5 In many provinces this custom is still strictly observed at Christmas; at which time an extraordinary quantity of the honey or pepper-cakes are made and sold. In like manner we are told by Lucian (Sat. c. 13.) that at the Saturnalia the bakers of cakes were fully employed. During the last days of this feast was a public fair (Sigillaria) where all kinds of toys and images, chiefly of wax (Sigilla) were sold for small presents,6 precisely as at our Christmas fair. At the time of the Saturnalia, not only holidays were enjoyed at every school,7 but at all the public offices,8 as during our Christmas. The holidays at the public offices were ordained by the Emperor Theodosius (Cod, Theo. C. b. c. de feriis) and afterwards confirmed by Valentinian, as also by the Greek Emperor, Emanuel Comnenus, and still later, not only by the canon law, but likewise by the ordinances of the imperial chamber.9 Still more striking is the similitude between these two feasts, when we take notice of the manner in which the middle ages kept Christmas. The famous fool’s feast, which, notwithstanding all the prohibitions of it by regents, councils, and popes, prevailed till towards the close of the 16th century,10 and of which some remains, even among the protestants, though principally in catholic countries, still exist,11 was commonly kept in the Christmas holidays, or at least it always fell between Christmas and Epiphany. The excesses and extravagancies which then took place much resembled those which prevailed at the Saturnalia. As at this the slaves acted the part of the master, and the master for this short time, even condescended to obey his slaves; so, at the fool’s feast, bishops laid aside their dignity, and let themselves down to a level with their dependents. And as at the Saturnalia a king of the feast was chosen by lot,12 so, from among the inferior servants of the church, a fool-bishop, and even a fool-pope, were chosen, who mimicked all the religious functions of a bishop.13 The mummery dances, pranks, tricks, and extravagancies, which went on at this feast, answer exactly to those of the Saturnalia, at which all sorts of folly and excess were equally privileged, as appears from Lucian.

Even in the design and meaning of these feasts, there appear between them a similarity, which argues greatly for the retention of the customs of the Saturnalia lay the Christians. The Saturnalia were an emblem of the golden age, when no distinction of rank divided man from man, while as yet perfect equality and freedom reigned among mankind, and there existed neither master nor slave: a delightful dream, the idea of which was well worth a seven days feast!

From the infancy of the church, the birth of Christ was regarded as the beginning of a new golden age, of which the poetical passages of the Hebrew poets, were considered as prophecies. Jesus Christ was expected to have restored this state of innocence in Paradise; (which really, some few modifications excepted, is at the bottom one and the same with the golden saturnal age of the Greeks and Romans, and at best an enchanting political dream;) and as it could not be proved, that through christianity personal slavery was abolished, (notwithstanding—though curious enough !—many modern historians assert, that the abolition of slavery is one of the effects of christianity, without recollecting, that there are Christian nations, who in America and the West-Indies use their slaves with greater barbarity and cruelty than the Romans and Greeks did theirs)—they assisted themselves with the idea of a religious slavery: for the allegorizing mystics transferred all the connexions and situations of civil life into religion, and in fact, the idea of a religious slavery may be more easily understood than that of spiritual conception, spiritual marriages, spiritual births and new births, spiritual deaths, and so forth.

At last, as it was perceived, that this new golden age would not yet quite succeed, they dreamt of a future second appearance of Christ, and a kingdom of a thousand years, where the golden age, or the state of innocence, should again flourish in all its purity and beauty.

Whether, when the farce of the Saturnalia was over, the Roman slaves comforted themselves in like manner with a future golden age, I know not; but I really could wish the present negro slaves just such a delightful dream, to comfort them under the cruelty of their christian oppressors.

The mystical similarity of these festivals, first gave rise to the celebration of Christmas at the time of the Saturnalia; though I suspect, that in order to prevent these two feasts from being considered as one and the same, they made their Christmas to begin just on the day when the Saturnalia ended: The common idea that the 25th of December was the true birthday of Christ is perfectly ridiculous: for it is a well known fact, that the real birthday of the divine founder of our religion is entirely uncertain;14 many centuries, at least the two first, passed over without this feast being kept, and it appears to have been first instituted in the third century. The eastern church, in whose vicinity no Saturnalia were kept, celebrated their Christmas on the 6th of January,15 and until the time of St. Chrysostom, who lived at the end of the fourth century, only the Western church kept it on the 25th of December, at which period the eastern church also conformed to that day.16 Should any one deem it unaccountable that the primitive christians should reconcile the adoption of a heathen feast with the mere alteration of a name, he must be ignorant how much the majority of mankind are attached to old customs. It appears even from the New Testament, how difficult it was to the converted Jews, and even to the apostles themselves, entirely to lay aside their Jewish ceremonies and rituals; could it then be less difficult for those heathens who embraced christianity, to deprive themselves of all their old religious customs? this we often witness in our own days, in the newly established Christian communities in Asia and America, instituted by missionaries, whether from among the Jesuits, or from the pupils of the orphan-house at Halle. These converts retain their old ideas and customs, or at least one half of them, and unite them with the new faith they adopt as well as they can. — Just so the old Christians. The bishops too even then understood as well, as did the Jesuits in modern times, the great art, to be all and every thing, and even advantageously to turn to their own pious views the prejudices and abuses of their heathen contemporaries; they therefore gladly overlooked the attachment of their converts to their old customs and prejudices, and were often satisfied, merely to substitute a new name for an old one.

Even Constantine, by the flattering priests falsely stiled the great,who (as even appears from his fawning flatterer Eusebius,) was as intolerant against the followers of the heathen religion, or even more so, than many of his predecessors had been against the Christians, yet, according to Eusebius himself, adopted it as a maxim, to make the Christian religion palatable to the heathens by transferring all the pomp and shew of the latter to the former, and hence it was that the whole ritual of the Roman-heathen religion passed over to the Roman-christian, in which there still exist many improper customs.17 And thus even we protestants conform to many church customs, innocent in themselves, after the example of the old Roman and Greek religions.18

It is also not merely a bold and uncertain supposition, that the Christians in the first century, before the introduction of the proper festival of Christmas, kept the Roman Saturnalia, but a fact established by the testimony of the fathers, and especially Tertullian. And though at the same time Tertullian (in his book on idolatry) exclaims with energetical eagerness, against the attachments of the new Christians to their old feasts and customs, and principally to the Saturnalia;19 yet his zeal seems to have been as fruitless as was in the middle ages the zeal of so many sensible clergyman against the fool’s feast and asses’ feast, with other customs, scarcely less shameful than absurd.

Should any one infer from what has been here said, that I consider the feast of Christmas as needless and superfluous, he will do me a very great injustice. Mankind owe too many obligations to the amiable founder of the Christian not to be bound to eternalize the remembrance of this beneficent and philanthropic ambassador of Providence; and though his birthday is so entirely uncertain that even the greatest of chronologers, Scaliger20 himself confesses, God alone could know it, yet the birthday acknowledged and established by so many ancient traditions and customs, must to every believer of our holy religion certainly appear far more sacred than was the birthday of Socrates and Plato to the scholars and followers of those Athenian philosophers, many centuries after their death,21 thus much, however, is certain, and must ever remain so, that never was the memory of a great man, since the earliest times, disgraced with so much folly, absurdity, and in some measure shameful abuses, as the birth of Christ; and whoever is not sufficiently convinced of it, need but peruse a few of the hymns in the old Porster, or any other similar hymn-books, to perceive with astonishment and indignation, to what humiliating misrepresentations of the deity, and of sound reason, this feast has given rise22 and that; to obtain due reverence from every Christian, it requires not the aid of mystical nonsense.

M. G.

  1. Originally only one day , to which two were added by Julius Cesar, two more by Caligula, and to these five were joined the two days of the feast of Sigillaria. Yet Macrobius, who relates these circumstances very minutely, says (Saturn, I. i. c. 10) Apud veteres jam opinio fuit, septem diebus peragi Saturnalia; si opinio vocanda est, quae idoneis firmetur auctoribus [I have omitted an additional quote, in Greek, from Lucian’s Saturnalia]
  2. S. Wildvogellii Chronoscopia legalis p. 286.
  3. Macrob. Sat. ii. 7. Inde mos per Satuntalia missitandis cereis coepit. Alii cereos non ob aliud mitti putant, quam quod hoc principe a tenebrosa vita quasi ad lucem editi sumus.
  4. In Lucian (Saturn. c. 7.) [I have omitted another quotation, in Greek from Lucian].
  5. Macrob. (Saturn. c. 7) Placentas mutuo missitant, meus & fructuum repertorum Saturnum affirmantes
  6. Macrob. (Saturn. c. 10, 11.) Suetoen in Claud. c. 5. Spatian. Anton. Casae r. Id. in Adrian, c. 17.
  7. Plin Ep. 6. 7. Tu in schota revocas, ego adhuc Saturnalia extendo. Martial, 5. epigr. 84.
  8. Martial, C. 7. Ep. 28. 7.
  9. S. Wildvogelii Chronoscopia legalia, p. 279, 298.
  10. Du Fresne Glossar. V. Kalendae
  11. For example, the usual disguises on Christmas nights, as angels, shepherds, &c. &c. and the visits which the Christmas-child, and the servant Ruprecht, make in houses where there are children; a custom which in our part of the world, particularly in the country (and even in Berlin itself), is still very prevalent.
  12. Lucian. Saturn, c. 2 and 4
  13. In the midst of the festivity of the Saturnalia fell the feast of Lares, see Macrob. Sat. c. 10. Xi. Kal. lan. viz. the 22 dez. At this feast the slaves represented the high priest (Dionys. Hal. 1. iv. p. m. 219) exactly as did the under servants of the church at the fool’s feast. Also at the Saturnalia, the slaves put on their masters’ clothes. Dio Cass. l. 60. p. 957. (de. Reim).
  14. Clemens Alexandr. an historian of the second century, Strom. I. p. m. 340, gives an account of the very contradictory opinions which prevailed on this subject, even in his time.
  15. S. Bingham Origines ecclesiast. vol. 9. p. 67, seq.
  16. Chrysost. Homil. 31 de natali Christi.
  17. In the year 1780, Sir William Hamilton saw at Isagna in Abruzzo waxen priapi offered to Sr. Cosmus, under the modest name of great toes. s. Göttingen Taschenbuch, 1784, S. 47. f.
  18. Only to mention one example,— Why in our churches are our altars always placed towards the east? For no other reason, but because this was a sacred custom among the Romans. s. Vitrov. L. iv. c. 5
  19. Tema dc Idolatr. c. 13. [I have omitted a lengthy Latin quotation from Tertullian] By the bye, I would observe, that, had the real feast of Christmas been kept to early as she time of Tertullian, he would certainly have mentioned it here.
  20. De emendat. temp. p. 545.
  21. Plut. Symp. 8.. 1. Porphyr. in vita Plot.
  22. I appeal to the free and sound reason of mankind, if it is not real blasphemy to sing, “Little boy, great God,” (Kleiner Knabe, grosser Gott.) s. Porst Gesangb. Nr. 41, v. 1 (or Nr. 37. v. 2), “Almighty God became quite a little child,” (der little child,” (der allerhöchseter Gott wird ein kleines kind) — Great God! How is it possible, that even clergymen should not only suffer such blasphemies — but consider them as honouring the Deity, and maintain and defend them with pious zeal and religious calumny against those who think otherwise!!!

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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