10 minutes reading time
SEP 10 2021

History of Gift-Giving: From Cavemen to Gen Z

Have you ever wondered where the tradition of gift-giving comes from? Many researchers have tried to shed light on the origins of this human habit which is observed in all cultures and social settings around the world. Giving gifts seems to be driven by our need to build and maintain good relationships with others in our social group. It is a symbolic act that allows us to express our feelings and strengthen our social bonds. However, gifts and gifting traditions have evolved considerably over time. So let's dive into the history of gifting, from prehistory until now, and take a look into the future of gift-giving!

Gift-giving is way older than you think

Extraordinary excavations have revealed that even cavemen were already giving each other gifts. According to the paleoanthropologist Ariane Burke, between 35,000 and 10,000 years ago our ancestors were exchanging symbolic objects. While often created from decorated bone, shells, teeth, ivory, stones, tree bark or feathers, Homo Sapiens' handmade gifts were not as simple, or primitive, as we might think. These aesthetic symbols were engraved and pierced in order to be worn as necklaces, bracelets, pendeloques, or sewn onto clothing and allowed them to identify themselves within their own tribe and distinguish themselves from other groups. Archaeological findings also indicate that prehistoric ornaments were given as gifts to create bonds with individuals from other tribes as well. An impressive example of this is the estimated 40,000 years old ivory figurine, which was discovered in Germany in 2008 and is known by the name of Venus of Hohle Fels. This voluptuous female figure was carved from a piece of mammoth tusk and was most likely worn as an amulet or pendant. Not so bad for a “primitive” gift right?

Ancient Egypt’s Gifts to the Gods - Give and You Shall Receive

Ornate gold statue of Egyptian goddess, Isis.

The ancient Egyptians, some 5000 years ago, had a unique reason behind giving gifts. Rather than strengthening social bonds with peers, or neighbors, they gave gifts as offerings to their gods. These offerings were in exchange for protection, a favor, health, wealth or just general mercy. Superstition and religion went hand in hand in Ancient Egypt. The deceased were buried with gifts that were intended to guarantee them safe passage and a comfortable afterlife. They believed that everything buried with them followed them to the other side. These offerings included everyday items such as bowls and food, but also jewelry, idols or furniture for the more wealthy amongst the dead. Gifts were also given to pharaohs on their coronation day, which marked their rebirth as an actual deity, and thus someone from whom Egyptians wanted favor.

Did the Egyptians also give gifts to each other? Yes! For instance, during their New Year, which would have been around our calendar date of July 19. It was a popular holiday for the ancient Egyptians and the best occasion to exchange wishes of prosperity and divine blessing, accompanied by gifts like vases or small flasks, filled with holy water from the Nile.

Ancient Greece Was the Origin of Celebrating Birthdays With a Cake and Candles

The rites and traditions of offering gifts in an exchange for divine protection continued with the Ancient Greeks. For example, a child was given small amulets after birth, which were supposed to protect it from diseases. People believed that evil spirits haunted a person on their birthday. To ward off that evil, and to protect the birthday boy or girl, it was customary in Ancient Greece to offer wishes and gifts. The gifts gave the recipient a bit of good luck, in a way. So, if you ever questioned why you get presents on your birthday, it goes back to that belief that evil spirits are out to get you! A little less cheery than the way we see it today.

Not only does celebrating your birthday go back to Ancient Greece, but also the candles and the traditional round cake. The ancient Greeks lit candles and blew them out while making a vow of protection. As for the round cake decorated with candles, believers offered one to the goddess Artemis every sixth day of the month. Its roundness symbolized the full moon and its candles, the moonlight of which she was the goddess.

Middle Ages Introduced Edible and Romantic Gifts

Stained glass art of medieval family.

When Europe entered Medieval times, many tried to completely abolish superstitious habits. The Church saw amulets as a symbol of the devil's hold over men and of idolatry. However, the exchange of gifts played still an important role in social interactions in the Middle Ages. They were a useful way for people to foster relationships, such as dowries, or to prove their loyalty to powerful people like the king or influential church members. Gifts were also exchanged on New Year's Day, as in ancient times, but this time it was more about showing individual power and generosity. The most common gifts were edible goods, as food was - and is - indeed a powerful social status symbol. Back then, the kind of food you ate really depended on your social rank. So offering each other tasteful treats for special occasions, or inviting each other for festive dinners, was meant to impress and show off wealth.

The Birth of Romantic Gifts

Since prehistoric times, flowers and other plants have been used primarily for medicinal use. But in the Middle Ages, flowers were their own love language. As the Roman Catholic Church looked down on any public demonstration of romance, lovers gave each other flowers to express their feelings without being punished for it. Different flowers had different meanings, so elaborate messages could be given with just a single flower. Beyond blooms, singing serenades, reciting poems, or sewing locks of hair into clothes were all intimate gifts commonly exchanged between romantic lovers. Even today, it seems we still take inspiration from medieval gifts. Writing a song or poem for a loved one is still practiced. From mixtapes to unique romantic playlists are modern day examples of these classical gifts.

Late Modern Period: Gender Roles in Gift-Giving

As time went on, the exchange of gifts became more and more complicated. Social norms have always had an impact on the rules of giving gifts, as we have seen. But halfway through the 18th century, rules of morality and gender norms also had to be taken into account. Women were not expected to give gifts to men to whom they were not related or married to. If wives gave gifts to their husbands, they were usually shaving kits, soaps, pens, tobacco boxes, or desk sets. More creative women would, of course, have made handmade gifts instead.

Gifts for women at that time had to be appropriate for the relationship shared with the gift giver, or else a scandal would break out. They were usually hygiene items such as soap and perfume, but could also be jewelry, handkerchiefs, knitting needles, fruit, candy, or flowers.

As for the children, boys would get toy soldiers or mechanical trains. Girls were given dolls, or small pots and pans. Thus, gifts that were seen as the perfect preparation for their gender’s role in society. Children from working-class backgrounds received more modest gifts, like gingerbread, small handmade toys, an orange, or even a piece of coal if they had not behaved well! So morality introduced the habit of only giving a good gift to those who behaved well and no gift or punishment for those who didn’t. Whichever you received, good or bad, stayed a surprise thanks to the gift wrap, which was also invented at the end of the 19th century.

Gift-Giving Nowadays

Since the 20th century, gifts have become part of our daily life, albeit as the main focus of marketing and consumerism - flowers, jewelry, perfumes, toys for children. In 1917, Hallmark created the gift wrap we know and use extensively today. Tissue paper had previously been used to wrap gifts; however, when that ran out ahead of the upcoming holiday season and Christmas celebrations, the company came up with an alternative in order for all the gifts to sparkle and shine under the Christmas tree. In the 1950s, the introduction of big town stores and shopping malls made gifts more accessible and common. The sixties are often referred to as “The Golden Age of Advertising ''. Companies and retailers started to create stories and characters around their products and featured personalities to establish a stronger connection between viewers and brands. And in the 20th century, there are way more events and occasions on which gifts are expected, such as graduations, getting a new job, a new house, baby showers, gender reveal parties, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Valentine's Day, even Galentine’s Day… you name it!

Gifts Going Digital: Millennials and Generation Z

Young Gen-Z man and woman holding mobile phones.

These many new cultural traditions put forward new rules and - also - a new social pressure: for your loved ones, it is sometimes expected for you to organize the perfect party with the perfect surprises and to have the right gift at the right time for the right person. Safe to say this is a far cry from the flowers and stones of gifts past. Not to mention, next to already busy lives, this pressure to become ever more creative when searching for the perfect is often left last-minute. But luckily for us, the internet exists and helps with this generational drive of creative gift-giving. What better place to search for the best gift than online?

From Millennials (people born between 1981 and 1996) to Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012), these “Digital Natives” are generally characterized by increased and familiar internet, smartphones and social media usage. But do they take their gift shopping habits online too? A recent survey amongst Americans shows that in 2020, Millennials made more than 54% of their purchases online and 67% of them preferred to shop via the internet rather than in-store. So the simple answer is, yes. Gifts are increasingly bought online, or becoming intangible: Gift cards for digital experiences, such as subscriptions for music or video streaming, are increasingly popular. Second best only to intangible gifts that provide a more tangible experience, like a photo shoot, a surprise weekend away, or even a personalized video shoot. Even though digital technology has become an important part of daily life, Millennials and Gen Z consider themselves conscious generations. A shared memory of an experience is valued more highly, than an expensive but quickly outdated object. And what could be better than sharing and enjoying that same experience with the person you are giving it to?

The Future of Gift-Giving: Where Are We Headed?

One thing is certain, gift-giving is one of the foundations of humanity and we are not soon to let go of it, especially due to the sense of joy and well-being it brings to not only the recipient but the giver as well. The act of giving is a cultural act defined by the traditions of its time, firmly rooted in inherited rituals of older generations. Originally used as an effective and necessary way to gain protection and recognition from others, we find that over time expectations around gifts have changed. Despite the ancient and modern traditions that we continue to honor, gifts are becoming more personalized, more creative and even handcrafted again. You don't have to dole out large sums of money for expensive gifts, when the recipient may find even more joy from a gift card to be used toward an experience, like a concert or weekend trip. The only difference is, that through the internet, people can easily shop for, and deliver unique gifts all over the world.