A Short History of Gift Giving

AUTHOR: Allie Hartford

Think of all the occasions on which we give gifts nowadays: Christmas, birthdays, weddings, engagements, graduation, Valentine’s Day, bar mitzvahs, baby showers, house warming, anniversaries and the list goes on. Has this always been the case?

Giving in ancient times: Science is a good place to start. In our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, males have been observed giving gifts of food to females. In early humans, it has been documented that the more generously a man gave, the more easily he would attract a female. So giving seems to have served some evolutionary benefit!

A “potlatch” is a gift-giving feast practiced by Native American cultures for thousands of years. The custom is observed on special occasions such as births, deaths, and weddings. In terms of giving, family prestige was measured by who could give the most lavish gifts. Here, the attention was on the giver, not the receiver!

From antiquity, Homer’s “Odyssey” illustrates the Greek poet’s view that gifts and gift-giving played a very important role in society. “Xenia” - or the ancient Greeks’ concept of hospitality - dictates that one should extend gifts to strangers; both in material form, as well as in non-material gifts, such as providing shelter to the anonymous traveller. According to Homer, the concept of a duty to be kind and generous to your fellow beings was a force for social good, and helped maintain order.

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 the biggest gift in history, France presented the United States with The Statue of Liberty on the 100th anniversary of The Declaration of Independence. (Although as the saying goes, there’s always more to the story).

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 most (in)famous gift in history? After a 10 year siege of the city of Troy by the Greeks, the Greeks built a wooden horse and left it at the gates - and the army sailed away. Apparently. Anyway, it was customary at the time that a defeated general surrendered his horse, so the Trojans can be forgiven for thinking it was some form of a gift to accompany the “surrender”. The rest is history. Beware the trojan horse!

The biggest gift event? Christmas. One could be forgiven in modern times for thinking that the tradition commenced with the gifts from Three Wise Men (which were a blessing for life for the Baby Jesus) but history tells a different story. Giving at Christmas is more a story of economic development and a story of industrialisation, rather than the growth of a religious tradition. It wasn’t until the advent of cheaper manufacturing in the late 19th century that goods could be easily and affordably obtained for exchange on special occasions.

Today? From scientific and historical origins, we can see that gift-giving grew to be firmly established across all nations and societies. The science and history of the custom serves only to explain on one level. The fact that gift-giving was widely practiced across ancient and diverse cultures, tribes, religions, languages and countries means that the act of giving is much more fundamental to the human condition. To go deeper then, we need to see giving as an expression. To understand more, we have to look to philosophy. For a richer appreciation, we need to explore The Joy of Giving.

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