For many people, February 14, Valentine’s Day, means giving or getting a bouquet of flowers, a box of candy, a romantic greeting card, or some other gift as a token of affection. For merchants, Valentine Day’s sales are generally second only to Christmas, which remains the biggest gift-giving holiday of them all. And, of course, giving gifts on a person’s birthday is a tradition that has been passed on for generations. There are countless occasions to give gifts and every culture in the world recognizes the importance of gift giving. But, why do people give gifts?
Most of the time, we give gifts to people we care about. By doing so, we tell them how we feel. Gift exchange helps to establish and maintain social relationships that we feel are important. You might have heard the saying, “It’s the thought that counts.” In fact, the value of the gift itself is rarely important. Rather, it is the intention behind the gift that makes the gift important.
The 1905 short story “The Gift of the Magi,” by American author O. Henry, perfectly illustrates the importance of gifting. In this story, a young wife decides to sell her luxurious long hair to a wigmaker to buy a watch fob for her husband. When her husband comes home, he is surprised to see his wife’s beautiful hair gone, for he has brought her a gift of jeweled combs that she no longer needs. His wife confesses she sold her hair to buy him the watch fob. Her husband sheepishly admits that he has sold his watch to buy her the combs. The two are then overcome with emotion as they realize they have sacrificed their prized possessions out of love for one another.
(By the way, a watch fob was a common accessory years ago. People carried pocket watches before wristwatches became common. A fob was an ornament attached to a short chain or ribbon attached to the pocket watch to make it easier to pull it out of a pocket. The hair combs were decorative, too, and used to hold long hair in place rather than to comb it.)
Among anthropologists who study human culture, the practice of gift giving among individuals or groups is called reciprocity. This means someone gives something and gets something in return. Gifts represent reciprocal exchange even when a person gives a gift anonymously or receives nothing in return. For example, a person may make an anonymous donation as a gift to a cause the person supports. Since the giver feels happy about giving and gains satisfaction from the apparently one-sided transaction, the exchange is, in fact, reciprocal.
All societies have occasions for gift giving. In some societies, gift giving has grown from a simple exchange between two people to elaborate ceremonies between groups.
Japan, like most Asian societies, has a deeply rooted tradition of gift giving, where gifts may be exchanged during many different social occasions. Great care and emphasis is put on how a gift is wrapped and presented. In Japanese culture, the emphasis is on the act of giving rather than the gift itself. The value of the gift is less important than the presentation and thoughtfulness in which the gift is presented.
The potlatch is a ceremony of feasting and gift giving practiced by Native American peoples of the Northwest Coast region of North America, including many First Nations peoples of Canada. The term comes from a Chinook word for giving away. For up to a year before the event, hosts would collect foods, blankets, baskets, and other goods to bring to the potlatch. The potlatch concluded with the host giving away all the items to the guests. Potlatches served a vital function in Northwest Coast societies. They strengthened bonds between clans and family groups by sharing goods. In return, the hosts achieved greater status when others saw their generosity. Such generosity became a challenge to rivals to outdo the hosts at another potlatch. If a host or guest did not fulfill certain ceremonial duties, however, it could lead to feuding or war.
Kula is a system of gift exchange, accompanied by elaborate ritual ceremonies, found among the peoples of the islands southeast of Papua New Guinea. Two kinds of valuable objects—red shell necklaces and white armshells—form the gift offered and the gift received. Only men are involved in this annual ceremony. Usually, the necklaces were exchanged among islanders in one direction and armshells were exchanged among the islanders in the opposite direction. The name kula-ring is sometimes used to describe this elaborate system. The importance of the kula was to establish peace. It also developed trade among the islanders in other goods.
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