“The history of gift giving goes even further back than the cavemen, though, if you include chimpanzees.”
Gifts have been an integral part of culture since the very beginning of human history. Today, they remain an important aspect of most celebrations, from weddings to anniversaries to house warming parties.
The act of giving gifts, however, has also never been as simple as it might at first appear. If you struggle with it, you might gain comfort from the fact that navigating the world of gift giving has always been a little bit complex.
Our earliest human ancestors exchanged gifts on a regular basis. In the case of the cavemen, gifts were often used to demonstrate a man’s generosity and ability to provide, which meant he had a greater chance of finding a wife and building a family.
The history of gift giving goes even further back than the cavemen, though, if you include chimpanzees. Considering our close evolutionary relationship to the primates, it is interesting to note that even chimpanzees exchange gifts. Male chimps will often gift food to females in the hopes of mating with them or receiving other favors. It is clear that our earliest roots contain traces of the gift giving spirit that is so prevalent today.
Gifts show up in just about every culture throughout history, and while the type of gifts or the rituals surrounding gift giving have changed over time, the reasons for giving gifts have stayed much the same. Here is a look at some reasons that gifts have historically been given.
The Native American potlatch is an example of the human tendency throughout history to mark special occasions with a party and gifts. This extravagant party was used to commemorate a wide variety of events, including births, adoptions, and weddings. The main goal of the potlatch was to showcase gift giving. A family’s social status was determined by how generous their gifts were at these events.
Ancient Egypt is an example of the practice, still used today, of exchanging gifts among nations. The Egyptians provided the Hittites, their neighbors, with stone jars inscribed with the royal monogram. These gifts became some of the first among the innumerable gifts that have been exchanged between governments since then (including the Statue of Liberty from France).
Some of the most beautiful and extravagant gifts exchanged throughout history have been in the name of love. Some historical examples of this kind of gift giving include the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, given to a homesick wife; the first Faberge egg, given in 1885 by Tsar Alexander III to his wife; and a 68-carat diamond given to Elizabeth Taylor by Richard Burton.
Today, we have engagement rings as a traditional gift given to express romantic love and commitment, as well as hundreds of other types of gifts that can be given to demonstrate romantic affection. We even have a day devoted to this type of gift exchange (Valentine’s Day).
Gift giving has historically served important roles in maintaining relationships and societal structure (which may also be why exchanging gifts can feel like such a high pressure activity at times). For example, the Yucatec Maya would exchange gifts at certain parties in keeping with their societal emphasis on the importance of the elders in their midst and on the equality of everyone else.
Psychologists have identified a number of roles that the history of gift giving has demonstrated. These functions are still played by gifts today. Here is a look at some of the most common reasons that gifts have historically been exchanged:
The expectation, even if subconscious and implicit, is often that a gift will be reciprocated in some way. While that tendency is stronger in some cultures (such as the Japanese culture) than in others, the idea that you will get something for the gift you gave away is firmly entrenched almost everywhere. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is in the realm of hospitality: The guest is often implicitly expected to become the host at some point in exchange for the gift of hospitality they received.
Psychologists point out that giving gifts has greater emotional benefits for the giver than for the one receiving the gift. Giving someone a gift leaves us with a feeling of warmth and well being that encourages us to continue the practice. One example of this phenomenon is the tendency of pet owners to give gifts to their pets. The owners provide gifts for their animals not because the animal can reciprocate but because it is emotionally rewarding to care for their pet in that way.
Finally, gifts are often exchanged as a way to build relationships. This is why refusing a gift or opting out of a gift giving event (such as Christmas) can negatively impact relationships: The gifts are a way to demonstrate that you value your relationship with the receiver of the gift. A wide variety of relationships can be built and maintained through gift giving, from bringing a meal to your new neighbor to buying your children gifts at Christmas to governments sending each other presents as signs of peace or good will.
Today, gifts are exchanged at a huge number of events. From holidays like Christmas to life events like weddings and house purchases, chances are that you have the opportunity to exchange gifts many times a year. Unfortunately, giving gifts does not come easily to everyone. Most people have stories of truly bad presents they received from others.
However, thanks to the importance placed on gift exchanges, the answer to difficult gift giving is not to abandon the practice altogether. It is to find a system that works for you. If you need help finding the perfect gift (or remembering to give a gift in the first place), Occasion Station can offer you a system that works. Our personal shopping online services allows you to arrange for unique gifts at the right times for the important people in your life so you can succeed at continuing the tradition of gift giving.