Brief History of the Act of Giving a Gift


The meaning of gift

The first word that comes to mind is generally a present. It is given without the expectancy of payment and is given voluntarily. It can mean to bestow favour towards a person or to honour an event or occasion.  But in actual fact, a gift can also be many other things that can conjure up to my commercially oriented and skeptical mind, words such as: offering, grant, reward, bequest, endowment, contribution, souvenir and so on. 

Each of these words have specific definitions that in fact date back a very long time and to a certain extent still exist today in classifying what a gift actually is or could be perceived as being. Perception is the receiver being a little wary – be careful of receiving gifts from strangers, is what was drummed into us.

Endowment sounds like what our grandparents gave in their wills; bequest sounds as if it is coming from a wealthy landlord to his serfs and an offering, for me, is the lamb on the sacrificial table.

Exchanging Gifts – a Social Relationships over Time

Examining the process of exchanging gifts in the past can reveal various social and economic insights into the way governments, families, and social groups operated.  Gifts were exchanged between states or governments to create alliances and amongst families to improve relationships and resolve conflicts. They were often given as a bribe, or for keeping the peace. Staying on good terms with one’s neighboring country meant in some instances grand gifts were given in the forms of live animals, boats, exotic plants, slaves or rare and precious stones. The act of giving to the church was considered non-negotiable if you wanted to be a good religious follower and not have wrath bestowed upon you. Kings were given treasures, the poor were given alms and the church was given whatever people had.

Gift giving was, and still is, a feature of what goes on between people, indicating the relationship between the giver and the receiver. The various justifications and formats over the years have shown us how people operated under these customs. The wrong gift given under the wrong circumstances sometimes lead to years of quarrels and amity.  People were very often forced into obligatory gifts rather like our Valentine’s Day and into bribery – may I say it, like many a political system in existence today.

Sadly, today we have become a little cynical, because we are controlled by market forces that tend to put a price on exchanges of these sorts.  Heaven forbid that we don’t think of bequeathing a Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or Valentine’s gift on those due dates that we are reminded about in every form of media. 

Gifts given in Kindness or Gratitude rather than to mark a Special Occasion

If we go into the history of many indigenous people we see that it was customary to exchange gifts and the more prestigious the gift the more important that person or family was in the tribe. According to historians even in very early cultures the act of giving gifts existed mostly as a token of love and affection and not much has changed. Animals have been known to supply gifts to their mates in the form of foods or a free grooming session. What would be nicer than to have your mate give you a present by cleaning up your fleas and handing over that deliciously ripe fig? Obligatory, bribery, or pure kindness? It shows though, that evolution played a role in the act of giving. In earliest man a tooth from an animal made into a necklace, a special herb with healing properties, a newly sculptured rock for cutting, were types of gifts given. Chieftains bestowed their appreciation with gifts given to those members of the clan who performed certain achievements. These took the form of land, cattle, wives, or titles.

In Egyptian times, pyramids were built for the pharaohs where gifts were stored for the afterlife and idols were placed alongside these gifts. In ancient Rome and Greece presents were given in the form of good luck charms to ward off evil. In Medieval times dowries existed where personal gifts were given in the form of coins, precious stones, animals and cloth.  In some cultures, these forms of marriage offerings still exist.

Giving Gifts at Christmas Time

The history of giving gifts over Christmas in Christian culture was based on the gifts given to Jesus at his birth by the three wise men. Christmas in the 18th century was a more religious time than it is today and it was common to hand out what was called a Christmas Box, mostly consisting of money to poorer and in need families.  This was a bequest, generally from a wealthier person to a poorer one, much like giving alms to the poor. It may have been Christmas but the overriding reason for the gift giving was to show gratitude and kindness.

From a pagan perspective, the Druids gave mistletoe, their holy plant, to their gods at the beginning of their new year and today we still hang plastic replicas over our door frames at Christmas and yes, permission granted, you can kiss under it! May the New Year be a happy one!

Curry Favour, Demonstrate Loyalty or a Gesture of Goodwill?

Interesting and exotic presents given to royals over the ages have taken all forms and shapes.  Exotic animals were a common gift in both ancient and fairly modern times.  King George III was given a cheetah in 1764 by the Raj in India and King George IV was given a giraffe by the Egyptian Pasha in 1827.  Prince Albert sent Queen Victoria a beautiful gold locket which contained a painted miniature of him as an engagement present. 

Homer’s Odyssey shows gifts and the act of giving a very important role in society as a form of hospitality.  The idea was that all forms of hospitality, whether in material or non-material form, should be extended gifts to strangers. This may have been offering them shelter or food. It was a way of showing kindness and generosity to fellow human beings and in doing so society would benefit in being more gracious and civilised. It was gift given as a duty to the social good of the people.   

Would it not be a wonderful mantra to follow today – give graciously and show kindness, and the resulting social return on investment will follow for all societies.