New Worlds: Gift-Giving

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Odds are extremely high that every single person reading this has given or received a gift at some point in their life. It can be a lot of fun, on both sides of the equation . . . and it can also be a source of major anxiety or stress.

The way we use the word “gift” in English tends to give the idea a connotation of being something optional — an add-on that, if left off, wouldn’t really change much. This is profoundly misleading. Quite apart from the obligations that surround gift-giving, the idea itself is central enough to human culture that one of the foundational works of modern anthropology is The Gift by Marcel Mauss, an essay analyzing the concepts of reciprocity and exchange. Gifts are a major part of how we bond.

When do we give them? The answer to that varies from society to society, but might broadly be grouped into three categories. The first is personal events: birthdays, rites of adulthood, graduation, marriage, childbirth, retirement, anniversaries, and so forth. On those occasions it’s usually the person undergoing the event who receives gifts, though hobbit birthdays in The Lord of the Rings are a famous inversion of this (and I’d love real-world examples to go with that; I feel like they exist, but I can’t actually think of any). The second category is societal events, e.g. holidays like Christmas or Valentine’s Day, where many people are giving and receiving gifts at the same time. And the third category is contextual events: bringing a bottle of wine or other small item when having dinner at someone’s house, or services for which someone won’t accept payment, but a “gift” is expected in return.

Sometimes gifts are optional. Sometimes they really, really aren’t. You may not be required to give a birthday present to every single person you know, but at least in the U.S., if you send your child off to another kid’s birthday party without something in hand, you’ll quite possibly ruin not only their social life but your own reputation among fellow parents. In Japan, Valentine’s Day isn’t about romance; it’s the day women are expected to give giri choco (“obligation chocolate”) to their male acquaintances and co-workers. (Men reciprocate a month later, on White Day.) We certainly can and do announce that gifts aren’t necessary on specific occasions, but a person who shirks the expectation of gift-giving breaks the bonds of reciprocity that bind our world together, and we have a profound negative reaction that.

What we give is also a point of possible tension. I’m not just talking about the pressure to find “the perfect gift” for the occasion; depending on the society and the circumstances, particular types of gifts may be seen as profoundly rude. In East and Southeast Asia, it’s entirely common to give presents of money, usually in a red envelope — but for white Americans, handing over cash often feels embarrassingly crass. A check is more discreet, but still feels impersonal; gift cards are a workaround, dodging the taint of literal money while still allowing the recipient some amount of freedom in choosing their own present.

The nature of the gifts can depend on the occasion. Weddings and baby showers in particular both tend to feature practical gifts, because people are clubbing together to help the happy couple or new parents clear what otherwise might be a major hurdle, the acquisition of all the possessions required by their changed circumstances. But while some people may be perfectly happy to receive practical things like non-decorative socks or a new toaster on their birthday, many others would prefer to get something entertaining or luxurious. In some cases a practical gift may be read as implying that the recipient can’t afford the basics without help, transforming a present into a coded insult.

There can be a huge amount of symbolism wrapped up in the nature and details of a gift. I recently watched a lecture on symbolism in Chinese art, where the lecturer unpacked a dozen or more motifs — peaches, bats, clouds, and more — to show how the decoration on something like a bowl or a carved pillow might carry the message of “may you have many sons” or “may you achieve high office.” Some East Asian cultures try to give wedding gifts in odd numbers, because even numbers are easily divided up in a divorce. In other cases, the meaning of a gift may hinge on an allusion to folklore and history. Depending on your language, many of these symbols can hinge on homophones; Chinese is chock full of them, while English has less room there to play. You can even leverage the symbolism of gifts for conflict or communication in a story: do the giver and the recipient both understand the metaphorical weight of a given item? Or is there an unintended message, or one not received?

Even the process of how a gift is given and received carries social weight. Looking again to East Asia, accepting a gift the moment it’s offered can make you look greedy; instead there’s an expectation that you should refuse it a few times (maybe a set number, maybe not) before finally giving in. Even in the West, we may say things like “oh, no, I couldn’t possibly” or “you shouldn’t have!,” especially if the gift appears outside a major context like Christmas. Sometimes they’re concealed by wrapping paper or a decorative bag. Should you open it right then, or not? One culture may expect you to tear in right away, while another insists that you open it in private, and for specific occasions — Christmas presents; red envelopes of money at the New Year — you may have to wait until the correct day.

Whether it’s at the moment of receiving, after opening, or both, one thing does seem to be universal: you have to express your gratitude. We may be told as children that lying is bad, but at the same time, we’re expected to always smile and thank the giver for their thoughtfulness and generosity, regardless of what we actually think. In some cases verbal thanks are sufficient, while in others you ought to write a note, going to additional effort in order to show your gratitude. Then sometimes you have to give a gift in return . . . and so the wheel of reciprocity turns, never quite reaching equilibrium. Because while gifts may be a nice practice, they can also be a soft weapon, creating an imbalance of obligation that has to be righted. We’re deeply wired for fairness on that front, which can be both a good thing and a bad one.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Gift-Giving — 17 Comments

  1. I am sure there are others but for one real-world example of LotR-style handing gifts to others at your own party, check out the Northwestern Native American practice of giving away or destroying wealth called a Potlatch. Look it up on Wikipedia–fascinating and far too much information to give in a brief comment.

    • Another might be the feast of Saint Nicholas, the origin of Santa Claus, in the Netherlands. Sinterklaas, the sainted (and long dead) bisshop of Myra arrives (alive and well) on his boat from Spain each year, a few weeks before his birthday. He leaves on his birthday (December 6th) after giving gifts to all the children on the evening before.

    • Ms Brennan mentioned potlatches a couple of essays back. Definitely an interesting custom.

    • The potlatch featured in the essay two weeks ago. 🙂 I guess that’s in line with what I’m looking for here, but I was thinking more on individualized terms, rather than as a part of a large and complex ceremony that has a lot going on besides just the gifts.

  2. I think the greatest example of society understanding gifts as an obligation is the visceral reaction I (and every other person I know that I’ve asked) has when reading the book The Giving Tree. I have yet to meet one person who is not outraged at the actions of the boy towards the tree. It was elementary to all of us that by not returning the gifts or at least being grateful, the boy was a horrible person.
    Of course, it may be that all the tree wanted was the boy’s company, in which case the gift was returned at the last, but the outrage remains.

    • I think I managed to dodge ever reading that one as a kid, or else I scrubbed it from my mind. But yeah, children’s lit definitely is one of the ways we teach people what the norms are around this.

  3. Pingback: New Worlds: Gift-Giving - Swan Tower

  4. This exchange has stayed in my head since the first time I read it two decades ago:

    “The gold was a gift; you said so yourself.”

    “You are a woman,” Nahuseresh said very gently. “You do not understand the world of kings and emperors, you do not understand the nature of their gifts.”

    “Nahuseresh, if there is one thing a woman understands, it is the nature of *gifts.* They are bribes when threats will not avail.”

    Megan Whalen Turner ~ The Queen of Attolia

  5. Example from this culture, in the recent past
    In the same way that a guest would bring something, sometimes (especially at big events, like a wedding or kids birthdays) the hosts would give out *Party favors* often not very big or expensive.. (tiny package on the plates, in the dining room, candy on the pillow in the fancy hotel.)
    “Gift baskets”,’goody bags’.
    “Complementary” things at other events.
    I don’t know if it counts, but as kids, we were encouraged to make Easter baskets to hang on neighbor’s doornobs, anonymous gifts

      • They’re not gifts. They’re an attempt to avoid the Long Arm of the Law…


        One of the problems in early modern Europe was inconsistent weights. The “baker’s dozen” ensured that the round dozen added up to the minimum weight of a dozen prescribed by law, in an early consumer-protection scheme (because bakers had been shorting the amount of flour in their bread and allowing it to overrise, producing a loaf the same approximate volume but with less food value). The penalty was usually not for the squeamish; and many bakers being squeamish, they added a thirteenth item to ensure that the weight of the lot they provided “for” the price of a dozen exceeded the minimum, thus no penalty.

        I recall that this had a more-than-passing role in a couple of early English novels, perhaps one of Sterne’s? It’s been too long…

  6. If we take the party favors further, there’s the “gifts” that presenters at major theatrical/film awards often receive (which may be the impetus for their agreement). Similarly, well-established academic and professional conferences/annual meetings often also involve some level of gift-giving or freebies with all manner of reciprocal expectations. I’m a member of the American Library Association, which recently sent out an email advising members to “BYO tote bag” to the virtual exhibit hall.