At the Origin of the gift giving
From the Roman Empire to Christmas
A treat to one another
THE REASONS BEHIND THE GIFT
Before getting to the heart of the matter, should we really ask why we give gifts? Do we absolutely need an occasion, a pretext or any other justification to give a present?
Here at Impression Originale, we are convinced of the opposite. We believe in giving in the irresistible urge to treat one another. As a spontaneous driving force.
The gift has been an integral part of society and family life from the beginning of mankind: it is the expression of genuine generosity, a need for sharing and a proof of affection1. A universal symbol, the gift testifies to love or friendship, in a gesture of your gratitude through a present.
Did you know?
Your wish is my wish
“More than 2000 years ago, the Romans initiated the tradition of candles at birthdays to fullfill wishes and bring good luck for the year ahead”
In the absence of reason
A GIFT IS A DEMONSTRATION OF LOVE
When the routine settles a little too much in the daily life and we find ourselves caught up in our busy days, it is important to keep our care for each other at the heart of the interactions. Giving a gift helps cultivate this surprise, apart from any imposed calendar dates. A spontaneous gift is a demonstration of love, as Dr. Gary Chapman would advocate. Gift giving is one of the 5 languages of love2.
The present is only the tip of the iceberg. It hides the time dedicated to the process, from the initial thought that gave birth to the idea of the gift, to the magical moment of the presentation. This token of affection will remain long after the object itself, for it is our emotions that build our memories. The more careful the personalization of the styling, the more intense the emotion will be.
We live to share a little of ourselves with the people we care about. In mid-1920s some sociologists3 investigated in the notion of the gift giving in order to understand the motivations that trigger it. The underlying question was and still is: can the donation be selfless or is it always done with a hope of reciprocity?
The codes of gift giving
EACH CULTURE ITS OWN
Although universal in its symbolism, the gift is governed by a myriad of codes depending on the culture heritage. In Vietnam for example, the gift is handed with both hands to the recipient who will carefully place it in another room. The gift will be opened after the guests have departed. This is a mark of politeness. In the West, it is the other way around: the gift must be opened in front of the guests. In Denmark, it is not uncommon to receive your gift with the exchange ticket so that you can change it without causing any inconvenience. In every culture, the same emotion exists when receiving a present, with a greater attention in some countries for the packaging. For example, in Japan, the square piece of fabric that traditionally wraps the gift in a skillful folding technique (furoshiki) must be returned to its owner. The same furoshiki is used to gift back the original giver.
Now let’s go back to the origins of gift giving and the old traditions at their roots. Historically, the most commun traditions are linked to religious celebrations, births, birthdays and marriages. In recent History, societies have added more contemporary national or international holidays such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s and Father’s Day, or even Women’s Day… The latter is known in the West as a day of emancipation for the modern woman, while in the countries of the former USSR March 8 is an opportunity to give gifts to all women. In the interests of fairness, did you know that there is also a Man’s Day? True story. It’s on November 19th. Although this day is not recognized by the United Nations, it is celebrated in more than 60 countries around the world, under the impulsion of Professor Thomas Oaster in 1992. Another great occasion to celebrate the men of your life!
If we had to take just one, the quintessential religious holiday that pervades almost the entire world is Christmas. Born in Rome during the ceremonies of the “Saturnalia”4, Christmas is today a Christian holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus. The original gifts, coinciding with the arrival of the Three Wise Men, appeared on this occasion: small treats such as fruit or honey for children. This tradition will be common until the 19th century. From then on, the desire to develop stronger family virtues lead to gifts giving among the family circles. The emergence of department stores amplified this phenomenon with the first Christmas window displayed in 1893 at the Bon Marché in Paris.
We can evoke many religious celebrations throughout the world: Hanukkah is a tradition celebrating the victory of the transmission of Judaism against the attempt to Hellenize Jewish worship; Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim celebration which marks the breaking of the fast of the month of Ramadan; or other Buddhist and Hindu festivals. Each culture overflows with ancestral traditions which can have local expressions. These celebrations with long historic background that we sometimes forget, are today an opportunity to gather around family meals, a common sense of sharing with gifts of all kinds.
A magical tradition
The custom of gifting the newborns stems from the desire to provide protection against evil spirits. From that initial custom, the Romans then initiated more than 2000 years ago the tradition of candles at birthdays. They were supposed to grant the wishes of the celebrated one. That tradition was taken over by the Greeks and passed on millenniums later to our modern societies. At that time, the purpose of gift giving was to ensure that the person would be taken care of until the following year. This antiquity tradition, initially reserved for the wealthy people, then spread to all social strata.
Let's speak about love
Finally, weddings are undeniably an exceptional opportunity to give gifts that will accompany the couple to settle down and start a family. In the continuity of unions, Valentine’s Day remains the celebration of lover. The debate remains about its origin. Recorded as an ancient pagan festival of Romans, the most widespread origin of the St Valentine celebration evokes how Valentin de Terni, bishop martyr, was made patron saint of betrothed and lovers by Pope Gelasius in 495. Again a religious root we are not aware about.
To conclude and without exhaustively listing all the traditions, gift giving is the quintessence of all celebrations. Whether the occasion is historical, religious, family, romantic, friendly, or even commercial, we celebrate our loved ones by giving a piece of us5. Let us seize the opportunities to celebrate one another by developing the art of giving, taking care as much of the content as of the gift wrapping. Keep in mind that it is the time infused in the preparation of a gift that conveys the demonstration of care and affection to the recipient.
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Sources and interesting articles to read
- Martyne Perrot, « Cadeau de Noël, Histoire d’une invention », retrieved from https://journals.openedition.org/lectures/12533
- Gary Chapman, The 5 languages of Love, retrieved from https://www.5lovelanguages.com/5-love-languages/
- Essai sur le don de Marcel Mauss, retrieved from http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/mauss_marcel/socio_et_anthropo/2_essai_sur_le_don/essai_sur_le_don.pdf
- Matt Salusbury, Published in History Today Volume 59 Issue 12, retrieved from https://www.historytoday.com/archive/did-romans-invent-christmas
- Alain Milon, La valeur de l’information : entre dette et don : critique de l’économie de l’information ; Presses universitaires de France, 1999, p 147