📸 A Potlatch ceremony, a gift giving ritual practiced by some Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest. (Source: Historica Canada)
Throughout human history, across wildly different civilizations and cultures, certain universal behaviors present themselves. Gift giving appears in the historical record as long as Homo sapiens do, with early humans exchanging small trinkets with each other, like beads or polished teeth. This is no trivial behavior: humans’ gift giving demonstrates their capacity for symbolic abstraction, their association of emotional value to something that has no utilitarian purpose. It is a behavior that separates us from much of the animal kingdom, that truly makes us us.
📸 Adoration of the Kings by Gerard David. The Christmas gift giving tradition draws itself from the story of the Magi bringing Christ gifts.
The exact reasons for gift giving among humans remains a matter of debate, but the most popular theory suggests gift giving evolved as a way to maintain social bonds. This was vital for the nomadic tribes of the paleolithic era, who relied on their cohesion as a group to survive. When you are buying a present for a friend, or unwrapping one you have just received, you are actually participating in a millennia old tradition that stretches back to the very origins of humanity.
Gift giving evolved into different forms across the ancient world, running in parallel with the rise of organized religion. Gift giving is intimately bound up with religious belief—in the Abrahamic religions, gifts are synonymous with charity and thus the act of gift giving is a spiritual practice. Theological debates around gifts appear in Rabbinic literature, in which it is noted that a gift given freely with no expectation of reward is charity, but it creates an inequality between the two parties, contrary to the religious idea of all humans being equal under God.
📸 Lucky red envelope's, a common gift giving tradition in China. (Source: PaperCity Magazine)
These sociological concerns in ancient societies were most famously studied in Marcel Mauss’ foundational essay The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Mauss posited that there is a dissonance between our idea of gift giving as a simple kindness with no notion of reciprocity with the reality that gift giving is a complex social exchange. No gift can truly be freely exchanged because gift giving is a kind of social game entailing ritual, manners, and the expectation of reciprocity.
📸 Silent Night by Viggo Johansen, 1891. Many of the Christmas traditions celebrated today were popularized by A Christmas Carol, published in 1843.
That being said, perhaps it is best not to boil down human behavior to simple evolutionary or sociological functions. Ultimately, when you buy a friend a gift, you do so because it is a nice thing to do, simple as. We are all familiar with the rituals surrounding gift giving: the wrapping paper, the exchange of presents, but gift giving varies considerably between cultures, from the Chinese tradition of sending money in lucky red envelopes on New Year’s, to the Japanese custom of refusing a gift multiple times before accepting. The exact rituals may vary, but the purpose is always the same: to express love or gratitude.
Other cultures vary quite differently from our usual notion of gift giving, like the Maasai people’s tradition of spitting on a gift before handing it over, symbolizing the importance of water in their culture. Mauss’ essay is particularly interested in the Potlatch practice of many indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest, in which tribal leaders reaffirmed their power by giving away or even destroying massive amounts of material goods. This practice, still maintained among some tribes, maintains social bonds among the group. One sees that across the world, gift giving traditions have evolved to fit each individual culture’s needs.
In the US, gift giving is most often associated with Christmas, but the custom has evolved considerably over time. Prior to the turn of the century, gifts were largely made at home by one’s family members, but with the advent of the industrial revolution, gift making became industrialized. Christmas, which to that point had been a relatively small celebration, became a massive celebration, running in parallel to the increased commercialization of the holiday. But through it all, the basic feature of Christmas remains, the exchange of gifts between friends and family.
Gift giving may seem like a simple human behavior, but it has a rich history that extends back to our very beginnings as a species. There are evolutionary and sociological debates to be had about the behavior, but a true gift is not given with any cynical thought of cementing social relationships or expecting a present in return. It is given with the simple desire to express how much you care for someone and how much they care for you.
Carmichael, H. Lorne, and W. Bentley MacLeod. “Gift Giving and the Evolution of Cooperation.” International Economic Review, vol. 38, no. 3, 1997, pp. 485–509. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2527277. Accessed 9 Oct. 2022.
Grant, K. (2016, December 2). The History and Complexities of Gift Giving. Reporter Magazine. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from https://reporter.rit.edu/features/history-and-complexities-gift-giving
Sherry, John F. “Gift Giving in Anthropological Perspective.” Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 10, no. 2, 1983, pp. 157–68. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2488921. Accessed 9 Oct. 2022.
Mauss, M., 1990. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. 1st ed. London: Routledge.
Waits, William. The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving. NYU Press, 1994.