What Gifting Rituals from Around the Globe Reveal About Human Nature

Illustrations by Joe McKendry

When nebuchadnezzar ii wanted to remind his wife of her homeland, he gave Queen Amytis the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. When a group of President Truman’s fellow Missourians wanted to honor his accomplishments, they gifted the White House a bowling alley. And when the French wanted to strengthen bonds with the United States, they sent a massive copper structure we now call the Statue of Liberty. Across the globe, and throughout history, gifting has played a central role in strengthening our international and interpersonal relationships. In fact, the giving and receiving of presents is so fundamental to humanity that it may be hardwired into our DNA: Scientists have found that our closest primate cousins, bonobos and chimpanzees, give each other gifts of food and tools, and humans likely have been giving gifts since the first caveman handed a shiny tooth or colorful rock to a potential mate. Through the millennia, gifting has remained universal to humans the world over, even as the traditions, rules, and superstitions of individual cultures have evolved as native plants have. Here, we explore some particularly noteworthy gifting rituals from around the world—not just for the ways in which they are unique, but also for how even the most peculiar rituals can reveal deeper truths about what it means to be human.

We Are Superstitious by Nature

when the chinese new year comes around, red envelopes filled with cash fly alongside the fireworks. These red packets are exchanged between friends and family in China, Vietnam, Singapore, and other Asian countries as a way to welcome the Lunar New Year and spread good fortune between loved ones. On its face, the ritual may seem straightforward, but the rules behind the red envelopes all come down to luck. For example, the amount of money inside each envelope must always be an even number—since even numbers are considered auspicious—but should never contain the numeral 4, because that word sounds like “death” in Mandarin.

It’s not just about the money, though: The envelopes themselves have significant meaning, as red is a traditional Chinese color of luck. Indeed, the whole envelope tradition evolved out of a belief that coins strung on red string would ward off a demon that came for children on New Year’s Eve. (The envelopes are often called yasui qian, or “suppressing ghost money.”) As the years went by, the coins turned to cash, and the red string became red envelopes. Today, there are even popular Chinese cellphone apps that send digital money in pixelated red packets.

While a mobile app may be a long way from a coin on a string, the tradition is an example of our enduring attempt to control our fortunes. Whether we’re avoiding going outside on Friday the 13th or playing our lucky lotto number, humans have a need to assert agency and try to control our fate in a complex world where most things are beyond our control.

We Rely on Community

at a housewarming party, everyone knows to bring booze or food—but in ancient times, housewarmings used to be a lot more literal. Originally, neighbors and friends brought over actual firewood to a newly constructed house. The wood would fuel the fire to heat the new home. Once the fire was going, the community would eat, drink, and be merry. In France, the term for housewarming is pendaison de crémaillère, or “hanging the chimney hook.” This refers to the hook that would hold the cooking pot over the fire in medieval homes. After the hook and pot were in place, the communal meal could begin.

“In ancient times, housewarmings used to be a lot more literal. Originally, neighbors and friends brought over actual firewood to a newly constructed house.”

Today most of us don’t heat our houses with firewood. We have central heating and air-conditioning units. But the tradition of friends, neighbors, and family all coming together to eat and drink together lives on. Modern guests bring gifts of wine, liquor, desserts, and snacks to a housewarming. But what really matters is that everyone is there together. Humans are social creatures, after all, who evolved to live in bands of hunter-gatherers. A housewarming is about a community coming together and reinforcing its social bonds. Although, in 2018, you probably shouldn’t show up with an armload of logs, unless you want to get some weird looks.

Our Intentions Matter

our perception of gifts is shaped by the intent behind them. Take the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania, who consider it a great honor to spit on a present before handing it over—that’s right, spit. For the Maasai, spit is a blessing. They spit for greetings, at weddings, and on newborn babies. The Maasai traditionally live entirely off their herds of cattle. They eat the meat, drink the milk, and sometimes even drink the blood. Because of this, water and grass are sacred. Water and grass are what the cow turns into milk. To spit is to share one’s own precious water with another person. For the Maasai, the intent of spitting is very different than it is on the streets of New York City.

“For the Massai, spit is a blessing. They spit for greetings, at weddings, and on newborn babies.”

No matter where you are in the world, intention matters, according to Dr. Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. “The question is, what are you trying to convey with the gift?” she says. “Are you just trying to check someone off the list? Are you trying to show the person that you care about them?” If you want to show you care, you have to consider how someone will receive the gift. “If you spend a lot of money and buy me an exquisite, first-edition book of French poetry,” she points out, “that’s not going to do a lot for me, because I don't speak French. It’s not going to make me feel cared for.”

We Judge Gifts by Their Cover

everyone says, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But sometimes we can’t help it; we are visual creatures. This is especially true of gift giving. Studies have shown that people rate the exact same present higher if it’s wrapped in beautiful paper and ribbons than if it’s left unwrapped. Perhaps that’s why we’ve been wrapping our presents for as long as we’ve been giving them. Likely, paper was used for wrapping before it was used for writing. Wrapping paper dates all the way back to the Han dynasty in China. Some Eastern countries have long used cloth to wrap presents, such as the colorful, patterned bojagi wrapping cloths used in Korea that can be traced back to at least the Three Kingdoms Period.

How a package should be wrapped, and in what colors, differs around the world. In Egypt, gifts are typically wrapped twice, in two different colors. In the United States, many parents will wrap every single Christmas present in bright paper even if the gift is something as large and obvious as a bicycle. Many countries also avoid specific colors when wrapping because they are associated with funerals and mourning, including white (China), green and blue (Thailand), and purple (South America).

But no matter what colors one uses, every present gets a boost from wrapping. Even though we tend to throw the torn-apart wrapping paper in the garbage, careful presentation increases the value of a present. Plus, ripping open a gift is just plain fun.

We Value Ritual

after having found the perfect gift, purchased it, and carefully wrapped it in beautiful packaging, you may think you’re finished. You’re not. One of the most important aspects of gift-giving anywhere in the world is actually handing over the present. If you don’t do so with the right ritual, you might offend the other person, regardless of how nice your present is. In China, India, and many other Asian countries, it is considered proper etiquette for the recipient to refuse a present, often two or three times. The gift-giver should keep offering until it is accepted, while also humbly insisting that the present isn’t too valuable. This back-and-forth (“Take it”—“I couldn’t”—“Take it!”—“No way”—“TAKE IT!!”—“Well, if you insist”) might seem unnecessary, but it’s considered bad manners to skip this social ceremony.

“In China, India, and many other Asian countries, it is considered proper etiquette for the recipient to refuse a present, often two or three times.”

While these practices may be more ritualized in some countries versus others, the underlying principle is universal. Dr. Michael Laver, the chair of the department of history at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says that “on the surface it looks like it’s novel to East Asia, but of course it’s not. If you were to go to somebody’s house, you may have taken great pains to pick out a particular bottle of wine for a present. But when you take the bottle of wine, the host might say, ‘Oh, this is a really great gift!’ And you would say, ‘No, no. It’s just something that I picked up.’”

We Give to Get Back

no matter what culture one comes from, giving is almost never a truly selfless act, since reciprocity of some kind is expected. “We’re human beings and we’re calculating people and we never do anything without some sort of eye toward the future,” says Dr. Laver. The French sociologist Marcel Mauss, in his seminal study of gift-giving, The Gift, explained that social bonds are reinforced by these mutual exchange of gifts. He noted, “In theory such gifts are voluntary but in fact they are given and repaid under obligation.”

What’s more, a gift is never just a gift; it is an extension of oneself. For two people—or two groups or even two countries—to exchange gifts is for them to promise that even more exchanges will happen. This is true whether two countries are forging diplomatic relations or you’re buying a round of drinks for friends at the bar. As Mauss put it, “The objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them.” And because these objects are an extension of ourselves, “the communion and alliance they establish are well-nigh indissoluble.” So next time you shop for a gift, remember that whatever you buy should reflect the “well-nigh indissoluble” bond you wish to build with another person—and maybe skip the pair of socks.