A Brief History of Gifting

Thursday 29th July, 2021

Gift giving, or 'gifting' if you like is as normal to us as Marmite on toast...wait, that is a bit weird but, well….you catch my drift! It is a normal everyday occurrence and covers a multitude of events and occasions. Baby showers, weddings, birthdays, graduations, house warming, new baby, get well soon, new job…...I could go on! To be honest it would be more difficult to think of a situation where gift giving wasn't appropriate or the norm, as let's face it, even with funerals and bereavements it is often customary to gift flowers to the bereaved or for the funeral itself.

However, despite it being inherently normal to bestow someone with a gift for an occasion (and sometimes expected) it must have started somewhere. Mustn't it?! And is gift giving always about bestowing the recipient with a heartfelt gift? Or are there other reasons behind why we give gifts, or maybe there are other agendas behind the practices?

Primitive Civilizations, Ancient Egypt & Ancient Greece

Gift giving can be traced back to primitive civilizations and even the animal kingdom! Animals have been observed presenting a gift to a mate, or even humans for example. This is especially apparent amongst our feathered friends in the crow family in particular. 
The Ancient Egyptians are who we can thank for the custom of birthday presents though. The Pharaohs were celebrated for their coronation as this was believed to be the day they transformed into Gods rather than mere mortals. This then became their new birthday over and above their actual date of birth as this date signifies the day they began their new life as a God. As a result, people bestowed gifts upon the Pharaoh to celebrate this significant day. Egyptians would also be buried with gifts following their death, as it was believed that these gifts would help the person in the afterlife. These gifts varied depending on the wealth of the individual and their social status. The richer people would have more elaborate gifts buried with them whereas poorer people would have more basic gifts. However they tended to be more useful gifts to help with the afterlife such as bowls, tools, clothes etc.

Cavemen also gave gifts to each other, but here shows our first example of how gift giving can carry somewhat of an 'agenda'. Some gifts were intended to be sentimental or a keepsake, in the same way we may bestow gifts in the current day to represent love, friendship and well wishes. However, many others were gifted to display dominance and control over others. Items such as rocks or teeth were intended to be given as sentimental gifts as these were often engraved and given as a personal item much in the way we would give jewellery today. Other more useful gifts would be presented to females from men in a bid to make themselves appear more attractive to them by displaying their ability to provide. It would also make them appear more important to other cavemen by asserting their dominance and 'wealth' with this display of power and success. This displays the flip side of gift giving in that it is not always done for sentimental or personal reasons, or even due to human kindness. It can also be done to emphasise and boost social status.

Gift giving in the Middle Ages also has displays of the hidden agenda. Food held value in the Middle Ages for obvious reasons, and therefore many gifts were food based. As above, this would hold feelings of power and wealth and was also often used as an example of a bribe with people giving gifts of food to help sway decisions, to get ahead of others or to receive favours. Another example of how gift giving isn't always done with positive intentions….!

Books were also common gifts during the Middle Ages and were seen as a symbol of dedication and commitment, and also wealth. Books back in those days would have been very expensive due to the time and work that would need to be put into them. If you think that each book would have been hand made, bound and written, it is easy to see why they would be so expensive and associated with conveying feelings of commitment. These were often given as romantic gifts as a display of affection.

The Middle Ages also provide us with another example of an alternative reason for gift giving or another 'hidden agenda' in the form of the dowry. A dowry involved placing a value on a woman in exchange for her hand in marriage. This exchange would be arranged for gifts of money, valuables or livestock, sometimes even property. It would also signify ability to provide for a future wife and also your suitability. This is because the potential suitor would name his price to the family and therefore make known his opinion of 'worth' of his future wife to her family. It would then be up to the family to decide whether this price met their idea of her value and whether they thought he would be a suitable suitor and able to provide for her in the future by displaying his ability to provide a generous dowry. The use of the dowry has been seen in other cultures and civilizations over the centuries and is still apparent today in some areas of the world.

The Ancient Greeks also play a big part in this history, and also the customs of birthdays. They believed that evil spirits would visit on your birthday, and therefore the idea of presenting the person with gifts and good wishes was a way to help prevent these visits. The blowing out of candles is also thanks to Greece as the act of the blowing out of the candle was to send a message to the Gods to protect the person from the evil spirits on their birthday! Gift giving in general was popular in Ancient Greece as gifts were often used to build relationships and also keep the Gods on your side. People who visited your home should be presented with gifts, just in case they were a God in disguise!

And let's not forget a very well known early example of gift giving…….the gifts from the Three Wise Men brought to bestow upon Jesus after his birth. These gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were to represent kingship on earth, holiness and death. Or a more generalised way of looking at these representations are as virtue, healing and suffering. Frankincense is actually an incense, and myrrh is used as an embalming oil. On the surface they appear odd choice of gifts for a newborn baby if you have looked at our baby shower gift ideas blog (!), but a clear example of how gift giving can be less about the gift itself and more about what the gift represents to the recipient and others.

And the psychology?

As we have seen from gift giving historically, there is often a reason or motive if you like, behind the act of gift giving. Aside from the personal and intersocial connotations of gift giving, there are many circumstances where gifting is active but not as obvious. This is still apparent today whether the gift is part of a more 'sinister' bribe or as part of a hidden agenda, or more likely as an incentive. Such as a free gift in a store once you buy over a certain amount, or on your second purchase for example. This is still a part of gift giving but without the personal touch or sentiment attached to giving a gift to someone close to you for a particular life event and often with the intention of enticing you to buy more. Gift giving is essentially so ingrained into everyday life and so normal, that we often don't acknowledge much past the obvious gift wrapped parcels as being associated with the act of gift giving. The actual psychology behind gift giving is very complex, and perhaps something you have never given much conscious thought to! More on that later…

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