The Roman custom of exchanging midwinter gifts appears to have spread throughout Europe and to have survived well into the Middle Ages. In medieval England, however, people gave these New Year’s gifts to those immediately above and below them in the social hierarchy. For example, peasants who worked on landed estates brought gifts of farm produce to the local lord during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Custom dictated that the lord respond by inviting them to a Christmas feast. The nobility brought gifts to the king or queen. The monarch in turn gave gifts to the members of his or her court. These gifts did not necessarily express affection but rather acknowledged one’s place in a system of social rank. Perhaps more personal kinds of gift exchanges also took place. If so, historical records fail to mention them.
In England the New Year’s gift flourished during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Some abuses did occur, however. In 1419 the City of London restricted its law officers from demanding New Year’s gifts from the public. Apparently, sergeants and other officers had been promising cooks, brewers, and bakers that they would overlook past or future offenses in exchange for a gift of their wares.