Gift giving is a tradition as old as time and there are many customs and traditions that vary the whole world over. Have you ever wondered about gift giving origins or how your family’s gift giving compares to those of other countries or religions? This blog will take a brief look at the history of gift giving and highlight a few of the more unique traditions from around the globe, including what one article says are traditional American gift giving traits. Information in this blog came from History and Traditions of Gifting from Around the World, Guide to Gift Giving Around The World, 20 Unique Gift-Giving Traditions Around the World, and Curious Gift Traditions Around The World.
History of Gifting
Gift-giving is one of the oldest human activities that dates 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.
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. 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, personalized garments and sewing strands of your hair into your soul-mate’s clothes.
The culture of gifting in Britain is characterized by a number of unique gifts, such as lottery tickets. These are often considered as appropriate gifts for marriages, while pre-Christmas celebrations are commemorated with gifts of oranges, candles, and ribbons. In Britain, people sometimes receive a decorative key on their 21st birthdays. Although diamonds are usually gifted on the celebration of 75 years of marriage, they are also often associated with 60, as Queen Victoria marked her jubilee while being on the throne for sixty years.
China has a long-standing tradition of customary reciprocity, which extends itself into their gifting habits. A gift in China is always well-wrapped in a wrapper of an appropriate color: gold or silver for weddings, red for joyous occasions, and black or white for funerals. Gifts in China are never enthusiastically accepted, as it is seen as a sign of greed. It is customary to insist the recipient to accept the gift even after they decline it once or twice. Gifts in China are usually thoughtful and impersonal, as jewelry, clothing, etc. are considered as items which may be gifted only to romantic partners.
While people in many countries typically present diamonds to seal an engagement, Fiji prefers to use whale teeth. Tradition in the Oceanic country dictates that the groom’s family presents the bride’s family with the tooth of a sperm whale, known as a tabua. Believed to have supernatural powers, a tabua is highly prized and is supposed to bring good luck to the marriage. In addition to engagements, they also are traditionally gifted at funerals, weddings, and births. Since they are both expensive and rare, they are considered more precious than other gemstones.
Since Iceland is one of the most literate countries in the world, the country’s holiday gift-giving tradition is every book lover’s dream. The tradition is called “Yule Book Flood” and it begins before Christmas, when the country distributes a free national catalog that contains every recently published book in Iceland. Using the catalog, gift-givers choose books for their loved ones and then present the gifts on Christmas Eve. Then everyone spends the evening happily reading their newly acquired books at home.
Indian tradition specifies the exact way a gift should be handed over. Since the left hand is considered unclean, it should not be used for eating, shaking hands, or giving gifts. Gift-givers must always offer the gift using the right hand in order to be respectful. Gifting money is also a welcomed tradition in India, but the amount of cash or value of a check must always be an odd number. Instead of $50, $51 is considered more appropriate since odd numbers are good luck.
Similar to the Chinese tradition, gift-giving etiquette in Ireland requires that the recipient must refuse the gift at least twice before accepting it on the third offer. This tradition dates back to the Irish Potato Famine, a period in history that marked mass starvation and destitution throughout the country. During this time, many people had nothing to offer their guests, although the old rules of hospitality dictated otherwise. For example, if a cup of tea was offered, guests would refuse at least three times to ensure they weren’t being too burdensome on their host by taking precious resources unnecessarily.
Although the concept of Santa Claus or “Bobbo Natale” in Italian is prevalent in parts of Italy, La Befana maintains a larger presence for children throughout the country. The kindly witch delivers presents on January 6, a day celebrated as the Epiphany in the Catholic church. Bearing some similarities to Saint Nick, La Befana flies through the air on a broomstick, dropping either cherished gifts or lumps of coal in children’s stockings, depending on their most recent behavior.
Many cultures don’t approve of the act of spitting, especially when it comes to gift-giving, but for the nomadic Maasai people of Kenya, it is essential. The Maasai recognize spitting as a blessing, which is why it’s common for gifts to be spit on before being presented to the recipient. The act of spitting on a gift (or spitting on anything for that matter) demonstrates respect toward the recipient and wishes them good luck. Even more common is the act of spitting on newborn babies and brides, or before shaking hands in greeting.
Malaysia has a few unusual practices regarding gifting, as it has a rich culture of reciprocal bonding. Corporate gifts in Malaysia are often avoided, as they may be perceived as bribes. Gifts are never opened immediately by the recipient in front of the giver, as it is often believed that a poor choice of gift might embarrass both parties. Due to the multicultural nature of Malaysia, a wide range of customs are observed while gifts are exchanged between people from different religions. Gifts in Malaysia are always given and received with both hands and is given shortly before departure, instead of making the present immediately after arrival.
In Scotland, New Year’s Eve is referred to as Hogmanay, a holiday that originated from winter solstice celebrations held by the Vikings. There are some interesting traditions surrounding gift-giving on this holiday. To bring good luck and fortune, the first foot to cross your home’s threshold on New Year’s Day should be a dark-haired male, since blonde hair used to be associated with invading Vikings and their raids. This person should also bring symbolic gifts that include whiskey, coal, salt, shortbread, and black buns.
Flowers are an important item of gift in Spain and is often considered as a special gift for occasions. However, in Spain, flowers are always gifted in odd numbers, except the number 13, as it symbolizes good luck. Gifts in Spain are accepted very eagerly and are opened as soon as they are received, in a display of appreciation.
Americans generally do not bring gifts to customers when meeting for the first time or as a thank-you for doing business together. Americans may, however, give gifts to coworkers, colleagues, and customers during the holiday season (late December). It is common for bosses to give gifts to executive assistants and other subordinates at this time.
When a gift is given to a person from the U.S., the giver might not receive one in return. Americans often open the gift right away, in front of the giver, so that they can see what it is and express thanks for the item.