If history is any indication, the ancients have long clung to the idea that it is better to give than receive. While gifts have changed, the fundamental concept of gifting has endured. Cultures have been continuously inventive, coming up with new ways to ensure that right gift goes to the right person. E-commerce is just latest stage in a storied tradition entrenched in many past and present cultures.
It’s not surprising that gift giving crosses cultural divides and has endured through the millennia. Psychologists, anthropologists, economists and marketers alike “have found that giving gifts is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction, helping to define relationships and strengthen bonds with family and friends,” The New York Times wrote in 2007. “Indeed, psychologists say it is often the giver, rather than the recipient, who reaps the biggest psychological gains from a gift.”
Gifts have also long been a means for nations to extend a token of friendship and strengthen ties with allies. The Statue of Liberty, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the U.S., was presented as gift by the people of France to mark the U.S. centennial as well as to recognize the alliance between the two nations that blossomed during the Revolutionary War.
Research has shown that the practice of gift giving stretches back to some of the earliest cultures, though there is little support to indicate that the Neanderthals could tie a bow. The social value of giving has been recognized throughout human history, such as with the Native American cultures of the Pacific Northwest, who for thousands of years have engaged in a festival of gift giving known as the potlatch. This complex ceremony celebrates extreme gift giving to the extent that a guest who did not match the host’s level of giving could lose face. Perhaps one of the most legendary examples of the ritual role of gifts in ancient history is chronicled in Virgil’s “Aeneid,” through the wooden horse that the Greeks presented to their adversaries in the Trojan War. Whether or not a myth, it went down as perhaps history’s best-known gag gift.
Rather than a tool for subterfuge, gifts have long been a favored form of expressing love, respect, and affection to others. Gift wrapping goes back to 2nd century B.C. China – and today, gift giving on the Chinese New Year continues the practice by wrapping gifts, often in red paper. The ancient Romans exchanged gifts during a celebration held around the Winter solstice holiday known as Saturnalia, delivering pottery or wax figurines to adults and toys to children. Many scholars have pointed to the practice as a main influence on the Christmas gift-giving tradition.
Modern gifting practices took hold much more recently. The tradition of wrapping gifts in colorful paper, for example, was introduced by the founders of Hallmark during the 1917 Christmas season. When the Hall Brothers’ store in Kansas City ran out of the red, green, white and holly-pattern tissue sheets used to wrap gifts, they turned to decorative envelope lining papers from France that were shipped in from Hallmark’s manufacturing plant and sold for 10 cents a sheet.
Wrapping is just an example of shifting norms – emotional etiquette shifts, too. Nouveau technologies tend to be viewed as impersonal when introduced, but gain legitimacy over time, until a point where they too become antiquated. For example, telegrams were used for important family news as well as a means to congratulate the recipient. Phone calls were once considered impersonal in comparison to handwritten letters, until email replaced much of what used to be voice communications, making phone calls seem more intimate today. Ironically, at the same time, handwriting has become so rare that the hand-written greeting card has grown in importance. Indeed, the rapid technological progress of our times mean that gift-giving traditions are in constant flux.
The common denominator of all these traditions is that gifting habits were directly influenced by the available services and technologies of the time. Contemporary gift giving comes with a new set of risks associated with getting an appropriate and thoughtful gift to the recipient. The impact of e-commerce on gifting is still in its infancy, but we’d like to think we’re doing our part in making sure while gifting technology progresses, the essence of gifting as a way for people to connect meaningfully remains eternally true.
– Roy Erez, Co-Founder and CEO, Loop Commerce