History and Traditions of Gifting from Around the World

People from all cultures and all walks of life celebrate various special occasions and celebrations by gifting each other. Gift-giving is a worldwide tradition that dates back to as far back as we can remember. It is a way to express our feelings whether they’re feelings of love, joy, appreciation or gratitude for another person. Not only that, but it also cements cultural traditions and social ties among friends, family and neighbors. Gift-giving is a beautiful universal act that is ingrained in our brains and in every culture because it helps people send meaningful messages. Ever wonder when and how did the tradition of gift-giving start and evolve overtime?

History of Gifting

Gifting à la caveman

Gift-giving is one of the oldest human activities that dates back to the origin of our species before civilizations came to be. Cavemen would give gifts to express their affection and appreciation towards one another and tribe leaders would praise someone for their contributions by giving them a gift. Naturally, back then gifts were more primitive; they would gift things such as an animal tooth, a tree bark or a unique-looking stone, which could then be worn as necklaces or other accessories.

Ancient Egyptians celebrating birthdays before it was cool

The ancient Egyptians were among the first civilizations to practice the tradition of gift giving. Gifts were given to the pharaohs on their coronation day, which was considered their ‘birth’ day because they were believed to have transformed into Gods and started a new life, making this occasion more important than their actual birthdays. They were also given gifts when they built massive pyramids for their afterlife. Gifts given to royalty at the time included jewelry, flower grains, crops and even money sometimes gifted as dowry.

The ancient Greeks were the real trendsetters

The Greeks then followed the tradition of celebrating the ‘birth’ of a God. One of the uniform celebrations around the world is birthdays; they’re celebrated in every culture, and in this day it’s quite hard to imagine birthdays without gifts. This unique form of expression is believed to have originated from religious beliefs in ancient Greece, where people believed that evil spirits would haunt the birthday person, so on one’s birthday, people would go and visit that person and bring them good wishes and gifts to protect them and to ward off the evil spirits. They would also light candles for the same reason; blowing out candles and making a wish was a way to send your message to the Gods. So we have the Greeks to thank for our awesome modern day birthday parties!

The Middle Ages: a whole new level of creativity

In the middle ages, gifts were given to show allegiance to and to foster political and religious favors to those in charge. Gifts were also exchanged on New Year’s Day, and common valued gifts at the time came in the form of foods to show power and generosity. Books or manuscripts were common as valuable gifts back then because they were expensive and customizable. They were given as gifts from one ruler to another, between family members, from patrons to churches and monasteries, and even as engagement gifts. A variety of romantic gifts that may strike us as a little weird were also given at that time including love songs composed by men and performed in front of women, washbasins, personalised garments and sewing strands of your hair into your soul-mate’s clothes. Whoever said that the medieval times were the dark ages?

Modern Day Gifting and Celebrations

Although sewing your own hair into your significant other’s clothes may not be received with open arms and googly eyes like it did in the olden days, gift-giving costumes and traditions continued and evolved with time. Each culture has its own unique, fascinating celebrations and gifting traditions that may vastly differ from your own. Some of these examples may sound unusual to you but all of these interactions reflect human’s goodwill, love and appreciation for others.

Gifting in even numbers in China

Chinese New Year is the biggest celebration in China that lasts for about 2 weeks. For the Chinese New Year, gifts are given wrapped in red wrapping paper or money is put in a red envelope because red is associated with wealth and prosperity. They avoid gifting anything in black, white or blue as these colors are associated with death and funerals. Additionally, the monetary amount given should only have even numbers, except for number 4 as it’s also associated with death.

An unusual souvenir in Italy

In Italian weddings, there’s a tradition where the groom’s tie is cut into many pieces and the guests buy these pieces in exchange for money given to the bride and groom. In many parts of the world, money is given to the newly weds as a wedding gift so in Italy, this is considered a fun way to gift money to the bride and groom to help them start their life together. The guests get to keep the pieces they bought as souvenirs.

Thank God I’m still alive!

Gift-giving is very important in Japan. Japanese people place high value on presentation and not only content, so gifts should be nicely wrapped.
A popular celebration in Japan is a festival called ‘seven-five-three’, which is held every year when Japanese children at the ages of 3, 5 and 7 are taken to a shrine and then given special sweets by the priest. This is done as a way to give thanks for the children reaching that age because a long time ago, children died before the 3rd, 5th and 7th birthdays, so they get to celebrate their birthday twice in one year! Every year is a good year for all 3, 5 and 7-year olds living in Japan.

Light it up in India

Diwali or festival of light is a 5-day festival that’s celebrated each year in India.  It’s considered to be India’s biggest and most important holiday of the year. It marks the celebration of good over evil. Friends and relatives exchange gifts on the 4th day. Gifts associated with this festival reflect joy and splendor. They include flowers, new clothes, gift hampers and traditional Indian sweets.

Thunder-stealers in Russia

In children’s birthdays in Russia, everyone gets to feel special because it’s not only the birthday boy or girl who gets a gift, but so does everyone at the party! Children play a game using a clothes line with gifts hanging from it and each guest gets to take a gift home with them. Similarly, the birthday person gives sweets to all his or her classmates at school so everyone in class is as excited for your birthday as you are.

Gifts, gifts everywhere in theMiddle East

The Middle East is full of celebrations all year round and gifting is frequent among friends, family and colleagues in most occasions. Arabs are well-known for their hospitality, politeness and friendly-nature, which is why sticking to their gifting traditions is an important part of their culture. To Arabs, it’s an act that brings people together and reflects their graciousness and generosity as well as good wishes for others. Occasions including birthdays, marriages and newborns; and religious occasions including Ramadan, Eid and the prophet’s birth are all celebrated with family and friends. Gifts are also exchanged with neighbors, no matter how well you know or don’t know them, during religious holidays as you’ll often find neighbors sending each other meat and local sweets in Eid holidays.

Moreover, in the Arab world, gifts are given in what might seem like a normal occurrence that does not require a gift in other cultures such as simply visiting someone in their home. Arabs’ generosity extends to the point where if you display an interest in an object they have in their home, you will most likely be leaving with it!

Other than their generous nature, what fosters the atmosphere of celebration and giving in the Arab world is the fact that they have big extended families with strong ties. They will pay visits to each other on a regular basis. No such thing as celebrating on your own or with just a few close friends. In countries like the UAE, it’s practically impossible to have a small wedding with only 100-200 people. If a big occasion is coming up, be certain that the entire extended family and close friends will be invited to a big feast where gifts are customary. Elaborate and more expensive gifts given from one family to another aren’t viewed as rude or inappropriate, they represent closeness, respect and appreciation.

Despite the myriad of gifting differences between cultures around the world, the similarities still prevail because the objectives are one and the same, to spread happiness and joi, to bolster social ties and to preserve and strengthen tradition, so no matter where you are, what traditions you follow, or what the occasion is, a well-intentioned, genuine gift that makes your loved ones happy is all that matters.

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