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The History of Gift-Giving

Alden Wicker

Today we have Christmas, Hanukkah, birthday, hostess, baby shower, wedding and anniversary gifts, just to name some special gift occasions off the top of my head. But was gift-giving always such an integral part of human culture?

A comprehensive history of gift-giving could fill an entire set of the (now exclusively digital) Encyclopedia Britannica, but for our purposes, let’s stick to the juicy highlights.

As an evolutionary trait, the act of giving a gift could be as old as humans. Men who generously gave would have more easily attracted a mate, and small gifts of food to females have been observed in our relatives, the chimpanzees.

For thousands of years, Native Americans celebrated extreme gift-giving with the potlatch, which marked life events like births, deaths, adoptions, weddings and inter-tribal events. Often the family with the most prestige was the one who gave away the most lavish gifts.

On a grander scale, governments have been exchanging gifts as signs of peace and goodwill since ancient times, when Egypt presented stone vessels with a cartouche, a type of royal monogram, to their neighbors, the Hittites. Often diplomatic gifts were live animals, such as a flock of birds (partridges in a pear tree?) Richard the Lionhearted gave to a representative of Saladin in the Middle Ages. Once “Jumbo the Elephant” from Cameroon was presented to Queen Elizabeth. (Queen Elizabeth has received quite a lot of interesting gifts, in fact.)

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Wide-necked stone vessel circa 1479–1425 B.C. Egypt via the Met Museum.

Our founders here in the United States weren’t so into the idea of diplomatic gifts, worrying it would lead to corruption, and banned them in the Articles of Confederation. When they realized that the rule would probably offend other, more powerful nations, they settled for making sure all diplomatic gifts were disclosed to the public. Now any gift the president receives that is over $335 must be turned over to the state.

There’s also a long, proud history of the rich and famous using gifts to express their love in a big way. The ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon were supposedly a gift from King Nebuchadnezzar II to his homesick wife, Amytis. In Russia, Count Gregory Orlov gave Catherine the Great a 198-carat diamond to win her back. (It failed to work.) And the first Fabergé egg was commissioned as an Easter gift for Empress Marie Fedorovna by Tsar Alexander II. More recently, Richard Burton purchased a 69-carat, pear-shaped diamond for Elizabeth Taylor, which she wore to the 1970 Academy Awards in a necklace.

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The hen egg Empress Maria received. It appeared to be a white enamel egg, but looks can be deceiving. Inside the egg was, naturally, yolk made of gold.

We can’t do a survey of gift customs without mentioning the upcoming holiday season. (Start looking now, everyone.) But despite the Three Wise Men’s gifts to Baby Jesus, gifts weren’t always an important part of Christmas. Before 1880, holiday presents in the U.S. and Europe were mainly whatever parents could stuff in shoes or stockings for their kids from Saint Nick. Any gifts that were exchanged among adults were small, handmade items. With the rise of manufacturing, however, more and more adults exchanged “gimcracks,” or cheap ornaments and knickknacks.

By 1912, the increasing pressure to shell out for Christmas gifts spurred a backlash. The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, or SPUG, boasted a large membership, including former president Theodore Roosevelt, and chapters across the country. Wartime rationing and frugality in WWII made SPUG redundant, and when prosperity came back to American in the ’50s, the movement against wasteful gift-giving had (sadly) died out. The emphasis moved from knickknacks to more expensive items, useful or not.

Today, gift-giving has been refined into a science, with gift registries catering to every type of person and event, including one just for experiences. The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman purports to help you find out whether your significant other values objects, quality time, sweet love notes, acts of service or physical touch the most. And as researchers have dug into the meaning of gift-giving, they’ve found something surprising: that gifts are more for the pleasure of the giver than the recipient. (Why else give your pets presents? They can’t tell the difference between a milk bone on Christmas and a milk bone on Tuesday.)

For this reason, even if you personally don’t like receiving “more junk,” psychologists say to let your well-meaning spouse, mother, sibling or cubicle mate continue to pick out something nice for you. It’s a way to encourage them to think about you, your tastes, hopes and favorite hobbies a couple of times a year (even if they are always so off) and strengthen your bond.

Who knew that the corny old phrase “It’s the gift of giving” actually bears truth?