There is no arguing about the fact that the giving of gifts has become a very big part of our daily lives. Whether its for someone's birthday, a newborn, Father's Day or Mother's Day or even Christmas, gifts have a pivotal role in the way we interact with each other.
Why are gifts so important to us these days? Is it because we just feel more generous and benevolent or is it that we are just better off with more disposable income? Where did the whole thing even start and why has the giving of gifts become so important? How about a little walk down 'history lane' - you might learn something :-) We did a bit of reading up on the whole thing and this is what we learned.
Although exchanging and giving gifts has been around since before the Old Testament, we thought we’d start our journey a little later.
In the days of Ancient Rome, gifts were exchanged during the Roman New Year’s celebrations. At first these gifts were token and symbolic, such as a few branches from a sacred grove or gifts of food and precious spices. Many of the gifts were in the form of vegetables and fruits in honour of the fertility deity, Strenia. While most of the gift offerings were done on a voluntary basis, history has plenty of leaders who did their best to make sure that they would benefit not only from many, but also from the most valuable and precious gifts they could get.
One year, Emperor Caligula of Rome, declared to his citizens that he would be receiving gifts on New Year’s Day. Any gifts he deemed to be inappropriate for a man of his position were publicly belittled and ridiculed. This way, the pressure was on to make sure that as a citizen or subject, your gifts would not result in you being humiliated. Even more important, the gifts were a way of also gaining favour with the boss. This is a practice which is still well and alive to this day in many places.
Like many old traditions, gift exchange was difficult to get rid of even as Christianity spread and began to assume power and wealth. Early church leaders tried to ban the custom, but the practice was too popular among the masses. So the Church leaders needed to find a way of legitimising the practice within its doctrine. The justification was found in the Magi’s – or Three Wise Men’s - act of bearing gifts to the infant Jesus and also in the concept that Christ was a gift from God to the world, bringing in turn the gifts of redemption and everlasting life.
Over the centuries and nearer to home, it can probably be said that the tradition of gifts owes more to the Victorian era in terms of similarity to today’s practice than anything else. Following years of decline in Europe, the Victorians re-invented the notion of exchanging gifts at Christmas by marking it as a time to unite family and to give thanks for good fortune. Friendliness and charity filled many hearts during their Christmas season, so the giving of gifts was natural. The primary reason for giving gifts was as an expression of kindness and gratitude, a sentiment that perfectly suited the tradition of the holiday.
Many years later, the exchange of gifts was took another step in the form of Santa Claus – the ultimate gifts bearer. He now became the symbol and personification of giving and receiving presents.
But its not just Christmas that warrants the giving and receiving of gifts. The world today may be one where many people are in a better position, where living standards for many have improved, but that doesn’t explain everything. With this new-found improvement in life has come the additional pressure to work harder and longer. As people spend more time either working or commuting, they tend to have less time to spend on friends and family. Its not unheard of to just see relationships drift apart because of this lack of time. As a result of this change in the way we live our lives, society has developed a way to get around this growing gap in our relationships.
We may have many friends that we cherish, family that we love and people that we want to keep in our lives. But we don’t always have the time to devote as much as we would like to them. We may only get to see them one or twice a year. We might even only get to talk to them once in a ‘blue moon’, but we still want them to know that they’re important to us. This is why occasions such as birthdays, housewarmings, Christmas and other milestones have become the medium for giving gifts. We may not have the time to visit or to chat, but we do want to let them know that we still have them in our lives.
Its easy to be cynical about it, but who hasn’t felt the thrill of excitement and happiness at receiving a gift parcel in the post on their birthday? What new mum doesn’t feel delight at opening a present for their new baby? And who can say that they don’t feel the same joy from knowing that they have made someone else happy with their gifts? Gifts are important – they are our way of staying in touch, saying thank you or just saying ‘I’m happy for you! Well done’!