Why do people give gifts? To most of us, presents are just superficial objects. To RIT anthropology professor Dr. Christine Kray, gifts have societal implications that are often left unexplored.

Gift-Giving Culture: Surprisingly Complex

“All cultures have different meanings that they attach to gift-giving. Even within different cultures, there can be different patterns of gift-giving, and different things they are trying to achieve by gift-giving,” said Kray. “There’s a great deal of complexity around gift-giving, and there is no simple answer. There are many different meanings cross-culturally.”

"There's no such thing as a gift in a vacuum," Laver said. "The whole cultural thing must be taken into account."

Dr. Michael Laver, history chair and associate professor at RIT, echoed Kray’s observations. “There’s no such thing as a gift in a vacuum,” he said. “The whole cultural thing must be taken into account.”

The study of gift-giving and its ties to culture were first investigated academically by Marcel Mauss, a French anthropologist and sociologist. "[Mauss's] main conclusion was that gift-giving is not uninterested — that is, people don’t just give gifts freely and without expectation," said Kray. "In fact, gift-giving usually implies an expectation that something would be given in return at some point, whether that be something material or that be a social relationship that is built through that gift or maintained through that gift.”

Kray and Laver discovered that their own respective findings were consistent with Mauss’s observations. Laver, who spent many years researching abroad in Asia, found Mauss’s comments on reciprocation especially applicable to Japanese gift-giving culture. “If I am in pre-modern Japan, and I gave you a gift, you were now obligated to me,” he said. “By giving a gift to you, I’m binding you to me in a web of social reciprocity.”

Kray, on the other hand, did field work for several years among the Yucatec Maya people of southern Mexico — and while the location of her studies could hardly be further removed from Laver’s, there are still remarkable parallels between the two culture’s gift-giving customs.

“[The Yucatec Maya] have a saying that ‘If someone visits your house, you should always give something, even if it’s just a little water.’ You’re always giving something to your visitor as a sign of hospitality,” Kray said. “And there’s an expectation when you visit them, they will return it to you.”

Laver pointed out how the reciprocal system of gift-giving is also present in Western culture. “Even a gift from Santa Claus is tied to good behavior — naughty or nice, it’s the reciprocal response. Gifts are never just gifts,” he said.  

Kray also remarked how a culture’s gift-giving practices are often manifestations of larger societal values. "Economic forms of transaction are often molded by requirements of society,” she said. “You can take that a step further and say that gift-giving also supports a society’s social structure.”

Kray certainly found that to be the case among Yucatec Maya, especially in their practice of the t’ox, a ritualized gift-giving ceremony.  After a day of celebration, the community would often gather to share a small treat or gift. But no matter what the occasion, elders were always served first, and then the rest in an egalitarian fashion.

The ceremony in turn would reflect two essential community principles, Kray explained. “This is a form of gift-giving that reinforces an idealized social system of two parts — respect for elders, and then equality for all,” she said.

Fluidity of Gift-Giving Practice

Since gift-giving traditions are so linked to cultural practice, it is understandable why they would change alongside fluctuations in societal values. For example, the American Christmas tradition has gone through quite the evolution in just the past 200 years.

“Christmas was not observed in any special way up until the 19th century,” said Laver. “You would maybe observe it with your family, you would observe it in a church setting — but you may not even go to church on Christmas day.”

In fact, gift-giving was initially associated with a completely different Christian holiday: St. Nicholas Day on December 6. “St. Nicholas was the Bishop in what is now modern day Turkey. There’s a lot of stories about him giving gold to daughters of poor fathers that couldn’t afford a dowry,” explained Laver. “So that gift-giving tradition formulated out of St. Nicholas.”

However, sometime in the mid-1800s, America’s customs toward the two holidays changed. “In the 19th century, Nicholas Day got conflated with Christmas. Because, of course, Christmas has nothing to do with St. Nicholas — they just happen to be somewhat close in time, only 19 days apart,” Laver said. “And because there is this tradition of gift giving around St. Nicholas, that’s where the gift-giving comes from."

There were numerous factors that contributed to that conglomeration. “My understanding is that you started to get big commercial pushes in the late 19th century that had to do, in part, to increased urbanization and big department stores downtown,” Laver explained.

Now, according to a Pew Research Center study, over 92 percent of Americans observe Christmas in some way. And in Kray’s opinion, the gift-giving aspect of the holiday will not be going away any time soon. "Every Christmas, people feel overwhelmed with the pressures of gift-giving," she said. "I know that it’s something that people feel a lot of stress about, but it’s an obligation we can’t get out from under without changing relationships."

"A sense of obligation can be incredibly powerful. I think that once a gift-giving tradition has been set, it's very hard to break that tradition." 

The Christmas giving tradition is not the only one most likely to persist — Laver's and Kray's examples of the Yucatec Maya and the Japanese gift rituals will likely enjoy longevity too. While in practice, they will continue to evolve alongside their respective cultures as they still share the very same binding ties. 

“A sense of obligation can be incredibly powerful. I think that once a gift-giving tradition has been set, it’s hard to break that tradition,” Kray said. “Because if you break from that tradition and say, ‘I’m not going to give gifts to my family’ then what you are saying in a way is that you don’t really care about those relationships.”