The History of Gift Giving


SweetAs Gifts is all about the giving of gifts and the love and warm fuzzies this brings, and it would appear that giving gifts has been around for as long as mankind. We have detailed a bit of the history below.

These days we give gifts for so many reasons: Birthdays, Christmas, weddings, engagement, graduation, valentine’s day, baby showers, get well, anniversaries and so on. There are large industries, including the booming online market, dedicated to creating and selling gifts that allow busy people to find the right type of present to give someone for any occasion they deem suitable.

Let’s have a look at the history of gift giving, where it all started and how it has evolved through the ages.

Gift giving dates to the caveman days where, even in this primitive culture, the giving of gifts was used to show love and affection towards one another. It has been documented that the more generously a man gave, the more easily he would attract a female. Giving gifts was also inferred as a status symbol when leaders of tribes or clans would show their appreciation for the contributions of those who were part of an important achievement. What on earth were these gifts I hear you ask! It could be anything from an unusually shaped rock, or bark from a tree, an animal tooth, or other items that are natural in origin. As tools were developed gifts became more elaborate and holes were drilled into stones and bones so they could be displayed on necklaces.

The early Egyptians gave gifts to their pharaohs who built massive pyramids to store their wealth for afterlife and produced idols to support their beliefs of idol worship. In Roman times people would present each other with good luck tokens, a tradition that lasted for centuries and later influenced Western civilization. 

The Yucatec Maya practiced, a ritualized gift-giving ceremony.  After a day of celebration, the community would often gather to share a small treat or gift. But no matter what the occasion, elders were always served first.

A “potlatch” (see photo) was a gift-giving feast practiced by Native American cultures for thousands of years. The custom was observed on special occasions such as births, deaths and weddings. The attention was on the gift giver, not the receiver, and often the family with the most prestige was the one who gave away the most lavish gifts.

The Romans had a tradition of presenting the Emperor and each other with good luck tokens, called strenae, mostly laurel twigs (from the grove of the goddess Strenia), also figs, honey-cakes, and dates. This occurred during Saturnalia. Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honour of the god Saturn, held on 17 December and later expanded with festivities continuing through to 23 December. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere.

During the Middle Ages gifts were used to secure the personal favour of the king or to show allegiance in times of war. Also, gifts were given by the bride’s family on betrothment, these gifts were known as dowries, and could range from coins to precious metals, or even a herd of cattle, goats or sheep. This practice carried on in Europe for many centuries and in some cultures, dowries still exist today.

Today gift giving is part of our everyday culture and defines who we are and the message we want to send with our gift. Gifts are given for all occasions and celebrations and are a means of communicating with each other and expressing ourselves. The modern-day Christmas gift-giving tradition in the western world is partly tied up with the gifts of the Three Wise Men who brought gifts at the birth of Jesus. The Druids used to make a gift for their holy plant, mistletoe, at the beginning of each new year, this has also become a symbol of modern Christmas festivities.

What happens when we gift?

  • We feel happier - Studies have shown that people who give gifts feel happier and better about their own lives.
  • It improves our State of Mind: Research suggests that giving gifts may improve a person’s state of mind. Feeling happy about giving gives a sense of wellbeing which in turn improves our mental health.
  • Social Connection: By giving a gift, we are not only expressing our feelings but building a stronger connection to the recipient, who in turn has an increased sense of wellbeing.
  • It’s Contagious: When a person starts giving gifts, not only will the recipient become more likely to give, those around them will start giving as well.

The biggest gift in history
The tradition of gift-giving among individuals grew steadily in Europe. So too did it become customary as an expression of friendship, neighbourliness and peace between nations. Arguably (and many do indeed disagree) the biggest gift in history, France presented the United States with The Statue of Liberty on the 100th anniversary of The Declaration of Independence.

The most expensive gift in history?
Located near the Indian city of Agra is the white marble mausoleum built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628-1658) for his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal; it is of course, the Taj Mahal. Some 20,000 artisans were engaged in its’ construction. In today’s terms, it can safely be said to be priceless.

The biggest gift event
Christmas: Far different from its early origins it is now more a story of economic development and industrialisation, rather than the growth of a religious tradition.

Rich and Famous Gifters

There’s also a long history of the rich and famous using gifts to express their love in a big way. A few of these are listed below.

The ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon were supposedly a gift from King Nebuchadnezzar II to his homesick wife, Amytis.

In Russia, Count Gregory Orlov gave Catherine the Great a 198-carat diamond to win her back. (It didn’t work)

The first Fabergé egg was commissioned as an Easter gift for Empress Marie Fedorovna by Tsar Alexander II.

Richard Burton purchased a 69-carat, pear-shaped diamond for Elizabeth Taylor, which she wore to the 1970 Academy Awards in a necklace.

In conclusion, we note that researchers have found, perhaps unsurprisingly to most of us, that gifts are more for the pleasure of the giver than the recipient. So even if you are dreading at the thought of more junk this Christmas, just relax and let your mother-in-law, pick out something nice for you. It shows she is thinking about you and want to strengthen the bond… or not!

SweetAs is in the business of gift giving and proud to be carrying on the tradition of making people feel happy and loved the world over. Buy someone a gift today and make someone special happy and may you feel the love that giving gives! J

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