Every Christmas, birthday, anniversary and special occasion, we carefully choose and offer gifts to our loved ones. It’s something we do naturally and most of us don’t think about its deeper implications. Yet, the gift we choose and how we present it says so much about us, our relationships, and the complex social structures within our community. Behind every perfect present lie social, psychological and emotional currents.
The history of gift-giving
The practice of gifting has existed since the beginning of human civilization. It may even predate it, with our closest ancestral relatives having shown signs of gift-giving. Researchers believe that cavemen gave presents like unusually shaped rocks or animal teeth to strengthen social connection and show their appreciation to others. As social structures developed, the gifts became more elaborate and decorative.
Gift giving in pre-colonial times
For thousands of years, Native American tribes have engaged in the tradition of potlatch. Predominantly a tradition of Pacific Northwest tribes, the potlatch was a complex ceremony where property and gifts were given to confirm or reconfirm the status and wealth of the gift giver. So, the more elaborate the presents and ceremony, the more powerful the gift giver. A powerful tribe leader would be expected to shower his tribe, according to their rank, with elaborate gifts. Similarly, Iñupiat tradition in Alaska dictated that upon returning from a successful hunt, whaling crews gave the largest portion of their catch to other tribe members. The more tribe members received, the more respected the whaling crew.
Ancient Egyptian gifts for the afterlife
Early records of Egyptian history show that the deceased was buried with goods or gifts required for the afterlife. It was the oldest son’s duty to oversee his parents’ burial and ensure they had everything they needed. At the bare minimum, these gifts would include everyday objects like bowls, combs, and food, while wealthier Egyptians would be buried with idols, amulets, jewelry, furniture and other valuables. Each gift had a different purpose, but most served to protect and help the deceased’s transition to the afterlife.
Gift giving in Ancient Greece
Gift-giving also played an important role in Ancient Greek society. Elaborate, decorative gifts were given to express emotion, build relationships, and in the spirit of mutual aid or hospitality – a central concept of Ancient Greek culture. Families were expected to welcome travelers, who could be Gods in disguise, into their homes. A proper welcome included presenting travelers with a meal and a place to rest. Gifts were also given as a sign of respect and devotion. For example, it was customary to present Gods with gifts in exchange for safe passage or protection on the battlefield.
Medieval gifting traditions
During the Middle Ages, gift exchanges played a significant role in social interactions. Gifting offered a meaningful way for people to foster social bonds, or show allegiances to powerful people and institutions, like the king or church. Dowries are a prominent example of medieval gift giving that was designed to promote relationships. Involving the bride’s father presenting lavish gifts to the groom in return for marrying and taking care of his daughter, these engagement gifts included land, money, livestock or precious metals.
Why do we give gifts?
As gifting plays such an important role in our social fabric, we give gifts for many, sometimes conflicting, reasons. At times our culture requires it, for example, Christmas or birthday presents. At other times, it builds and reinforces relationships with family members and potential mates, and can be done for a variety of reasons.