Gift giving history

chocolateA gift giving tradition is very popular nowadays and has evolved from a quite humble gift giving to a real event. In this consumers’ society of today gifts range from smaller and cheaper ones, to gift humpers, jewlerry and some other luxurious things.


A gift or a present is the transfer of something without the expectation of payment. Although gift-giving might involve an expectation of reciprocity, a gift is meant to be free. In many human societies, the act of mutually exchanging money, goods, etc. may contribute to social cohesion. Economists have elaborated the economics of gift-giving into the notion of a gift economy. By extension the term gift can refer to anything that makes the other happier or less sad, especially as a favor, including forgiveness and kindness. [1]

The custom of gift giving seems to stem originally from the Roman tradition of presenting the Emperor and each other with good luck tokens, called strenae.
As is often the case, this practice escalated perhaps in an effort to receive special favours or impress, so that more precious gifts were given, clothing, gold or silver items. This occurred during Saturnalia.
However the tradition probably goes back even further to the Babylonians, when the reincarnation of Nimrod as his own son, by his wife Semiramis, was born at the Winter Solstice (late December).In honour of this event Semiramis organised the cutting down and decorating trees (in Roman tradition they used decorated fir trees).
By AD324 the custom of Saturnalia was ingrained in the culture and the new Christian Emperor, Constantine, needed to satisfy both his new religion and the masses. So he converted Saturnalia into Christmas.
Part of the gift-giving tradition of the western world is tied up with the gifts of the Three Wise Men who brought gifts at the birth of Jesus. Outside of the Judao-Christian world the Druids used to make a gift of their holy plant mistletoe at the beginning of each new year. [2]

Why do we spend so much time every year pulling our hair out over finding the perfect birthday present for a new love interest or draining our savings account to buy gifts for our children? It turns out gift giving has certain psychological benefits for the giver, and the act of gift giving has complex societal significance. The history of gift giving can shed some light on this interesting and ancient practice, and why we still go through the pains to keep it an important part of our lives.
It turns out that gift giving might have helped early humans survive, and in this way became an ingrained part of our psychology. Early women who were the most giving with their resources, be it food, animal pelts, or whatever, had a better chance of sustaining their young and helping their family thrive. Men who weren’t afraid to share their resources were better at attracting a partner and passing on their genes. For early humans, gift giving might have had this hidden self-interested aspect, which led to it becoming a widespread human trait.
It’s not only modern-day societies with their disposable incomes that indulge in massive amounts of gift giving every year. Primitive, native cultures have their own form of gift giving, called potlatch, that is unconnected to any commercial calls for spending. In potlatch ceremonies, families give away many of their possessions and resources to others in the clan—the more extreme the giving, the higher the social status that family receives. These complex ceremonies have been going on for thousands of years, and current day researchers are finally getting down to the nitty gritty of what giving means for our psychology and our societal bonds. [3]

The history of gift giving can be traced back to about the Romans. On the first day of January, around the Winter Solace, people gave each other gifts during a celebration. The gifts were originally evergreen branches, and later developed into cakes, to symbolize prosperity and sweetness in the coming year. [4]

There is no disputing that Christmas giving has become a very big business: a strong holiday selling season often means the difference between a good and a bad year for a retailer. In the shopping frenzy that lasts from the opening of the Christmas buying season to the closing hours of Christmas Eve, it’s easy to forget what all the fuss is for.
It was not always like that. There was, not so long ago, a time when Christmas involved no gift giving at all, and in some countries that is still the standard. The union of Christmas and gift giving was a gradual one; actually, the full story of the bright packages beneath the tree begins in the days before the birth of Christ. [5]

Gift giving has long been a favorite subject for studies on human behavior, with psychologists , anthropologists, economists and marketers all weighing in. They have found that giving gifts is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction, helping to define relationships and strengthen bonds with family and friends. Indeed, psychologists say it is often the giver, rather than the recipient, who reaps the biggest psychological gains from a gift. Frustrated by crowds, traffic and commercialism, people can be tempted at this time of year to opt out of gift giving altogether. A 2005 survey showed that four out of five Americans think the holidays are too materialistic, according to the Center for a New American Dream, which promotes responsible consumption. [6]


The old saying “It’s better to give than to receive” turns out to be completely true when it comes to a psychological level. Gift giving ia also playing an important role in a peroson’s social life because giving gifts makes people evaluate the bonds they have with the others and decide which are worth keeping and which are not.




AUTHOR: Josip Ivanovic


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