Sometimes we forget that gift giving has existed since the beginning of mankind, not only to say I love you on a personal scale but also as a tribute or a way to gain some advantage.
From prehistoric times to the present day, gift giving has a curious history having played a far greater role in the affairs of a country and its population than it does today. The nature of gifting has changed significantly, and in this article we will explore how.
In most ancient cultures there was an expectation that gift giving would precipitate reciprocity in one form or another. There is still an unspoken expectation of this today among certain groups in society, but, in the western world, it is not always seen as being acceptable to think this way.
In ancient Egypt, gifts were given to please the gods in order to gain a favorable outcome in the life of the donor. The ancient Egyptians believed their pharaohs to be earthly gods and so they showered them with gifts in the hope that the pharaoh would mediate on their behalf with the gods. Many of these gifts – including jewellery, wall paintings, clothing, grains, gold and furniture – were placed in pyramids and would accompany the pharaohs on their journey to the afterlife.
Giving gifts to the gods was a common practice in many other countries too. In ancient Greece, the concept was one of mutual exchange. Ancient Greeks gave votive offerings to the deities as an expression of thanks for the gifts they received. These offerings ranged from painted panels to gold and silver. Other offerings were terracotta votives that were replicas of body parts such as arms or legs. These are thought to represent the part of a body that had been healed thanks to the intervention of the gods.
In the ancient Middle East, the giving and receiving of gifts had particular significance. During the Persian Empire (present day Iran), for example, the giving of gifts was designed to reward good behaviour. While evil behaviour resulted in unspeakable punishment, loyalty to the ruler and altruistic acts were rewarded with gifts in the form of tax relief, landed property, precious jewellery, an audience with a king or simply an invitation to eat and drink at the royal table.
Throughout history, the dowry or bride price was a common practice. A dowry was usually seen as a conditional gift but, and in some societies, involved a reciprocal transaction. Depending on the wealth of a family, a dowry could include items such as money, herds of animals, property or estates. Arranged marriages and dowries reach back into Babylonian times where the purpose of a dowry was to provide the bride with security, while in ancient Greece it was meant to protect the bride from abuse from the family into which she married.
Although dowries are still in existence in India, gifts in marriages these days are more an expression of love than an insurance or guarantor of a harmonious marriage.
During the Medieval Ages, gift giving touched on almost all aspects of life. Gifts were exchanged in the expectation of receiving an important post in society or for future favours, including personal favours from the king. Settlements between warring armies or governments also depended on the negotiation of suitable gifts.
Examples of gifts were paintings commissioned by wealthy individuals with respected master painters to curry favour with someone or as a gift or an expression of respect or affection for a relative. They often portrayed spiritual themes in accordance with the religious piety of this era.
Books and manuscripts were prestigious gifts. They usually had themes related to improving the reader´s moral character- religious teachings, values, etiquette or prayer, are examples. Books were customised and as such were coveted.
Charity to the poor or alms giving was another example of gift giving in this era. Charity has its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition; the selfless giving of food, clothing or money in exchange for God´s benevolence.
Reciprocity in the practice of gift giving during the Middle Ages served the purpose of bonding in society. One would like to think that even today giving meaningful gifts creates a feeling of connection which in turn gives us a sense of belonging.
The tradition of giving gifts during the Christmas period or for birthdays could have had its roots in Roman times. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival in honour of the god Saturn, was celebrated by exchanging good luck items such as laurel twigs, dried fruit or honey cakes. Festivities, gift giving, non-stop partying and a carnival like atmosphere began on the 17 December through to 23 December.
However, Christmas, as celebrated in western society, wasn’t widely observed until after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 AD and declared it the Roman empire’s favoured religion. The tradition of Saturnalia was very popular at the time. It is thought that in order to satisfy popular opinion, the birth of Christ would be celebrated during the Winter Solstice or around the time of Saturnalia. The pagan practice of exchanging gifts was also retained. Hence, over time, the pagan festival of Saturnalia morphed into the Christian tradition of Christmas and gift giving.
The nature and meaning behind gift giving has changed considerably over the centuries. The Evolution of Gift Giving
In ancient times, gifts were highly prized and occupied a position of reverence within families or organisations, often over many generations. A visit to a museum is testimony to the place in history of gift giving.
Today, gift giving has become more personal, as a way to show love, affection and appreciation. In our affluent society, a greater proportion of the population has the ability to buy gifts. But, in our fast moving, digitalised times, it seems that while the choice of gifts is huge, the time spent choosing a meaningful gift is limited.
Perhaps, it is time to sit down and contemplate what the purpose of gift giving is and how to give it a more lasting meaning. In Australia alone, $600m worth of unwanted gifts were given in 2018. It is sad that this could have been avoided by simply by taking a little more time to understand the person for whom the gift is being bought and what that person values in life.e Evolution of Gift Giving The Evolution of Gift Giving