The tradition of gift-giving is a very old one. It is apparent during every special occasion such as anniversary, birthday or Christmas. Giving gifts to loved ones is something that is done naturally and most people do not even think about what its significance is.
The gift that is chosen, and the way it is presented, says a lot about gift-givers, their relationships to recipients, and the complicated social structures in the community. Undoubtedly, there are emotional, social, and psychological factors present – behind the quest to find the perfect gift for a dear one.
Giving Gifts – The History
When did the history of gift-giving start? It is probably impossible to pinpoint the date. It can safely be argued that the practice of gifting has been there since the start of human civilization. The tradition might have even predated human civilization, given the fact that even apes and chimpanzees have been found to show signs of giving gifts.
According to researchers, even cavemen have been found to give presents – such as animal teeth or rocks of unusual shape – to show their appreciation to fellow beings and strengthen their social connection with them. With the development of social structures, the practice became more decorative and elaborate.
Pre-Colonial Times and the Tradition of Giving Gifts
The tradition of gift-giving has been there in many countries across the world, such as:
In India, gift-giving is a tradition during festive occasions such as Diwali as well as happy occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, religious initiation, thread ceremony, etc. In India, sweets and flowers are considered to be excellent traditional gifts. Sweets are regarded as auspicious and are gifted as presents to Gods and Goddesses.
Most Indians like to start something new with a sweet mouth. This is why, you can find sweets being given when new shops or offices are opened or when a person starts a new journey in life – such as passing an exam, going to a new workplace, etc.
If you are invited to the home of an Indian, the gift-giving custom is to bring a bouquet of flowers or a small box of sweets for the host/hostess. Never wrap your gifts in black or white colours, as these are regarded as unlucky colours. Instead, you should wrap them in bright colours – like yellow-red, and green.
For many centuries, Native American tribes have been following the tradition of potlatch. It is merely a custom followed by the Pacific Northwest tribes and happens to be a complicated ceremony, where gifts and property are given for the confirmation or re-confirmation of the wealth and status of the gift giver.
In this tradition, the more elaborate the ceremony is and the presents are, the more powerful the present-giver is considered to be.
A powerful tribe leader can be expected to shower elaborate gifts on his tribesmen, as per his rank in the community.
Similarly, in Alaska, the tradition of Iñupiat demands that after coming back from a successful hunting expedition, other tribe members are given the biggest portion of their catch by whaling crews.
The more that tribe members get portions the more is the reverence for the whaling crew.
In Egyptian history, the early records show that dead people were buried with gifts or goods – regarded as necessary for their afterlife.
It was the duty of the eldest son to oversee the burial of his parents and make sure that they had all the things that they would require. These gifts, at the very least, would include daily objects such as foods, combs, and bowls.
Egyptians who were richer would be buried with valuables – such as jewellery, amulets, idols, furniture, etc. Each of the gifts that went with the deceased person had a specific purpose, although most of these served in protecting and assisting the transition of the departed individual to the afterlife.
Gift-giving had a vital role even in the society of the ancient Greek people. Decorative and elaborate gifts were handed over for relationship-building, expressing emotion, and for hospitality or mutual aid – which was a concept of focus in the Ancient Greek culture.
Families were expected to welcome travellers to their homes – who were believed to be gods in disguise. As part of a proper welcome, travellers were given a place to rest and a meal. They were also given gifts as a token of devotion and respect. It was a tradition, for instance, to give gifts to Gods in exchange for protection on the battlefield or safe passage.
Gift Giving Traditions in the Medieval Era
In the Middle Ages, as part of social interactions, there was an exchange of gifts – which played a vital role. Gift giving was regarded as a meaningful way to establish and strengthen social relationships. It helped displaying loyalty to powerful institutions and people – such as the Church or the King.
Dowries were a major instance of gift during the Medieval Era, which was designed to promote marital bonds. The father of the bride was supposed to present lavish gifts to the groom, in exchange for the assurance of taking care of his daughter after marriage. The engagement gifts included precious metals, livestock money or land.
Important Gifts over Centuries
The tradition of gift-giving has a very important role to play in the human social fabric. Gifts are given for various reasons, at times even for conflicting purposes. There are times when it is a cultural requirement – for instance, during birthdays or on festive occasions such as Christmas.
At other times, gifts are given for establishing and reinforcing relationships with potential partners and family members. Gifts can be handed over for various reasons – such as:
For establishing and reinforcing relationships
Gifts are often given for establishing or re-confirmation of our bonds with others. In that sense, these are a reflection of the tastes of both the receiver and the giver; and it also reflects their unique relationship.
When a gift is handed over to somebody we care about, it helps us convey our appreciation and feelings for that person. Some sociologists believe that we only hand over presents to all those we want to have relationships with.
Marcel Mauss, an esteemed French sociologist, wrote in his book “The Gift”, that rejecting or not handing over a gift is a way of dismissing a relationship.
A symbolic way of communicating
Gifts are used to reflect the devotion and love between two partners and are according to the theory of “symbolic interactionism”, which means that symbols are used by people for communicating with each other.
For instance, when men have to express their devotion or love for their partners, they typically go for flowers – which are supposed to symbolize their romantic feelings for their partners under their fragrant beauty. When you get a gift, it is the thought that counts. When you consider deeply, you feel happy when you get a gift because of the symbolic meaning that is attached to it. When you get a present that you are not too fond of, it can be interpreted as thoughtless – even if it has altruistic motives.
To get anything in return
Gifts signify our desire to forge or strengthen a relationship, and these also need some kind of reciprocation. Dimitri Mortelmans, a modern sociologist, has argued that giving a gift creates a kind of “debt-balance”.
Naturally, to prevent any ill-feeling gifts need to be repaid with gifts – thus creating a gift-giving cycle. While reciprocating a present, something of almost equal worth should be given; if something of less value is given it means that the recipient does not think much of the relationship.
On the other hand, giving something more valuable might mean that you overvalue the relationship and can lead to embarrassing feelings.
For helping other people
Some presents are handed over with no expectation of any return gift. For instance, presents are often given to young kids – knowing well that they cannot reciprocate them. The same applies while gifting pets.
Although it might be argued that it is possible to reciprocate gifts in other ways, altruism could be at work as well. When it comes to gift-giving with an altruistic approach, appreciation and love are two of the major motivators.
When gifts are given to help others, it can include volunteering for a charity or donating money. Several theories are there, that attempt to explain why gifts are given for helping others. According to one theory, charitable gift-giving activates the pleasure centre of the brain that releases the hormone dopamine. To put it simply, we give gifts for charity because we feel good when we do it.
For getting a mate
Most humans and even animals present gifts as part of the mating ritual. Chimpanzees – who are one of our nearest relatives – have been found to give food items in exchange for grooming and sex, whereas gifts are given by gibbons to existing mates, to retain them. Biologists have conducted research – which indicates that humans, who are serial monogamists, present gifts for attracting mates and retaining them.
The same research showed that men who offered more generous gifts had more success at attracting mates and retaining them – in the short as well as in the long term. On the other hand, women were less likely to give gifts for mating and gave presents to friends and family members more often, for strengthening their social networks.
The tradition of gift-giving has been in existence since times of memorial, and the custom is likely to continue for as long as there is life. It is given and received with a purpose. Each specific gift elicits a particular sensation, and it is important to choose the right present for the right recipient, to ensure that it serves its purpose.