In the popular sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper points out that the foundation of giving gifts is reciprocity—and he’s right. Reciprocity is a vital factor in gift giving. That’s probably why the global market for personalized gifts is estimated to be USD$23.5 billion annually.
Gift giving is an enduring tradition that began in different parts of the world and across all cultures. Whatever the reason, giving gifts to others, whether family, friends, or strangers, has an altruistic tinge to it, expectations of reciprocity notwithstanding. After all, there have been gift-giving traditions around the world that have been going on since time immemorial. Altruism is universal across cultures.
And today, in the internet age, gift giving has become much more accessible, with sites like SVANA carrying jewelry that is ideal for a gift to loved ones, making gifting a straightforward process for all occasions.
Origins of gift giving
The tradition of gift giving probably started not long after humans first learned to walk upright. Paleoanthropologists have excavated proof that between 35,000 and 10,000 years ago, early humans practiced gift giving.
Gifts were symbolic and created from ivory, teeth, shells, bone, and stones. But these objects weren’t as primitive as you might think. They were engraved, pierced, and worn as necklaces, rings, pendants, and other jewelry pieces.
Other objects were sewn into clothing to distinguish an individual from other tribal groups. Moreover, archaeological findings show that these prehistoric presents were given to build bonds with other tribes.
The reasons and meaning behind gift giving may have changed since then. But the tradition has continued and spread across all civilizations. As human social structure evolved into something more complex, gift giving has become more elaborate and socially nuanced.
Gift giving through the ages
Rituals and traditions can serve as a catalyst for people to band together and bring them closer to each other. These practices also encourage them to cooperate and generally get along, strengthening their sense of community.
Although the gift-giving tradition has evolved through the years, it hasn’t changed that much. It remains one of the world’s most endearing traditions, its core intentions staying the same. Below is a brief discussion of the origin of gift giving all over the world:
- Gift giving in Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome
In ancient Egypt, a pharaoh’s coronation is seen as their monarch’s ascension to godhood. As such, the day is considered to be the monarch’s birthday. Consequently, pharaohs are honored by their subjects on their birthdays by showering them with gifts. And when they die, pharaohs are buried with a number of gifts, purportedly to help ease their passage into the afterlife.
In Ancient Greece, gift giving was supposed to ward off evil spirits that haunt a person on their birthday. Incidentally, the practice of blowing out the candle and making a wish also originated here. The Greeks would send a message (or make a wish), asking for the gods’ protection of the birthday boy or girl.
Like the Ancient Greeks, the Ancient Romans had a gift-giving tradition closely tied to religion. Their emperors, for example, traditionally received boatloads of gifts during the Saturnalia Festival held in the latter part of December. The festival was in honor of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. It would start on the Winter Solstice, which fell on December 25 on the Julian calendar.
Saturnalia was hands down the most famous Roman holiday. It was a raucous celebration that lasted seven days and consisted of playing music, feasting, socializing, and gift giving. Gifting, hanging garlands, and lighting candles were later incorporated into the Christmas celebration.
- Gift giving in the Middle Ages
Gifts in the Middle Ages were usually food-based and intended to establish the giver’s power symbolically. Gift giving was often a part of a business or diplomatic deal, but it was also meant for religious purposes. It wasn’t always a matter of generosity. For example, giving gifts to the poor was done with the expectation that the poor would pray on behalf of the giver. The same goes for giving gifts to the church.
Romantic gifts also became popular during this period. Men offered gifts like garments (a few yards of silk were a luxury) to win the ladies’ affection.
Dowry, the practice of gifting livestock, property, money, and other valuables from a man to his intended bride’s father, also became common during the Middle Ages. Dowry was seen as a common courtesy shown by the fiancé to the family of his betrothed.
This type of gift giving showed how much value a man puts on his future spouse, usually with a view of gaining her father’s approval. Marriage matches in the Middle Ages were often a political act of uniting two influential families or a deal between two affluent merchants. Dowry was perfectly logical back then.
- Gift giving in modern times
Giving presents today is more nuanced, with people putting more value on meaningful gifts. Mind you, extravagant gifts are still much appreciated, but a gift given with much thought behind it can elicit a powerful emotional response from the receiver. It’s the thought that counts, as they say.
Today, the presence of consumer goods makes gift giving much easier. Some ancient traditions associated with gift giving have survived, like blowing out candles and others. Romantic gifts are still very much alive, as well as gifts to curry favors.
There are many reasons to give gifts, but one thing’s clear: As long as altruism and empathy are alive, the practice of gift giving will endure.
Gift giving started in the prehistoric era and continued down through the ages. Different cultures have their own way of gifting. Some gift-giving traditions, however, survived and are still followed today. The abundance of consumer goods today makes the art of giving easier. But although reciprocity is a huge factor, altruism and empathy ensure that this practice will continue.