Photograph © Thana Thaweeskulchai
Since the dawn of time, people have been giving gifts to each other. Giving gifts is a form expressing one’s love, respect, and affection to another. Studies show the presence of gift giving practice even among the early civilizations. It is also observed that the tradition of gift giving actually started sometime in the early 1900s. In olden times, people gave gifts to their tribal leaders and exchanged gifts among themselves. These gifts were primarily made from the bark and wood of trees. Gift giving has always been reciprocal, except when gifts were given to the leaders of state in various cultures. The heads received gifts in order to procure favour and express commitment. This practice is being followed even in the present day in different parts of the world.
Today, we ring in birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries and a whole lot of memorable occasions by exchanging gifts. Gifts are exchanged among families, friends, colleagues at work and others during festive occasions and holidays. It is customary to give gifts during Christmas and people all over the world celebrating Christmas follow this practice. It can almost be stated that gift giving is synonymous with Christmas. Occasions like Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day etc., are also celebrated by giving gifts. Gifting is indeed one of the easiest of ways to spread happiness and delight. Here is an insight on how it all started.
Indications In The Bible
The tradition of gift giving in the western world seems to have its roots in Christianity. The Bible highlights quite a number of instances where gifts were given. The origin of exchanging gifts during Christmas is attributed to the Three Wise Men who are said to have followed a bright star from the East to Bethlehem where Jesus Christ was born. The three men are said to have brought along three gifts for baby Jesus. This gift giving act was believed to be the perfect way to bless the child with a wonderful life. Mary Magdalene washed the feet of Jesus with precious oil as a gift.
The origin of gift giving with roots in Christianity seems to be just one school of thought. Other studies show that the tradition of gifting traces back to non-Christian religious observances in the Yule of Northern Europe and from pagan holidays observed in Rome.
In the North during the season of Yule (the season around the 25th December, traditionally extending from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6) giving gifts was a part of celebrating the return of the sun and the Winter Solstice. People made gift baskets from wheat stalks that were considered to represent fertility and possess life-giving qualities. The harvest was thus a time of celebration itself.
The ancient Romans practiced the tradition of gift giving as early as the festival of Saturn, called Saturnalias celebrated around the 25th of December. Slaves, in a mocking manner, exchanged places with their master. Toward the end of the celebration, they exchanged simple pottery figures and wax candles termed ‘sigilla’, as gifts.
These traditions are said to be adapted into Christianity later and thus gradually became of part of Christmas celebrations. It is interesting to note that the Catholic Church at one point around the year 1000 banned the act of exchanging gifts as the Church believed the process to be too pagan.
Gifting Traditions Across The World
There are various gifting traditions worldwide. In pre-Christian Rome, the emperors insisted their most despised citizens to bring gifts and offerings during the Kalends (in January) and the Saturnalia (in December) seasons. This ritual gradually expanded to include gift-giving among the general populace.
In Egypt, pyramids and idols were constructed to honour the pharaohs. Gifts were also presented to beloved ones and used as dowries during betrothal ceremonies. These gifts included precious jewellery or metal, a herd of animals etc. During the medieval times, gifts were given to kings in order to receive allegiance in a war or personal favour. These gifts were mainly made of gold or silver and included statues, medallions, chalices and other such precious articles.
In Hinduism, a vast number of items, ranging from a plate of fruits to even human and animal sacrifices were offered before deities to please the Gods. This practice has however mellowed down over the years.
The Victorians restored the traditions of giving gifts as part of Christmas celebrations. The gifts exchanged then were more traditional and simpler. Gifts were scattered through the house and hidden in pies which gradually gave way to the gifts in stocking practice.
It is said that if we have a grievance with our kith or kin and have a gift to leave at the altar, we should bring a solution to the wrong first before we give the present. As with every other thing, the modern society has added its own twist to the original traditions of gift giving. Thoughtful gifting makes the holiday and celebration even more meaningful. What can be better than showing your appreciation through heartfelt gifts?