Gift giving is such a natural part of any special occasion and is an experience that all cultures around the world take part in. At Local Book Donations, we know the joy a gifted book can bring to anyone of any age, but where exactly did gift giving start?

This post takes you through the history of gift giving, showing how it has varied across different periods and cultures!

Even more, we explore the psychology behind gift giving, and how the process became such an important part of our lives. The history of gift giving is absolutely fascinating, whether it’s ancient Egyptians giving us “the birthday gift” or Alaskan whalers giving fish, you can see how this thoughtful and affectionate tradition came about.

Chapters of this story (click to navigate):

The Origins of Gift Giving

The tradition of gift giving is certainly not new to us. It goes back thousands and thousands of years – pretty much back to the beginning of human time! Gift giving has been a special part of all nations, cultures and societies, making it something all humans throughout history have taken part in. In this sense, gift giving is a fundamental part of human behavior, emerging from a range of different cultural backgrounds.

Even before the existence of humans, gift giving was present in the animal kingdom! Our chimpanzee ancestors have been known to give food to females in exchange for potential mating or receiving favors from others, meaning gift giving is definitely in our nature.

While gift giving among humans began with cavemen offering simple items to prove his ability to provide for a family, the process has become an incredibly crucial and extravagant part of our lives. As we’re sure you all know, gift giving is a traditional part of many occasions, and is expected for many special events such as Christmases or birthdays. We’ve always put a lot of emphasis on this social exchange, with the reasons for gift giving changing over time!

Even though gift giving is as old as humans, the way we view and take part in gift giving in the modern day only really began in the 19th century, when technological development and manufacturing enabled us to efficiently and affordably give a wider range of gifts. 

Gifting Through the Ages

The giving of and meaning behind gifts has certainly changed across the years! While gift giving has been common to all civilisations, the reasons for giving gifts, as well as the nature of gifts, have varied for different cultures.

While we often think gift giving is simply about giving something to someone special, focusing on them, we can also see that gift giving has been as much about the gift giver as the receiver, with individuals from certain cultures giving gifts to establish their own wealth, power and dominance!

This timeline takes a look at some of the different civilizations, showing how gift giving was experienced in different historical periods. Each culture has a very interesting and unique relationship to the art of gift giving!

Primitive Civilizations

The ancient tradition of gift giving can be traced as far back as cavemen! It was an important part of their communities, particularly for establishing dominance, being respected and starting a family.

Leaders of tribes would often give gifts to a person who had accomplished something great for their tribe. This helped them show their appreciation for the individual and reward them for their achievement!

On the other hand, ordinary cavemen often gave presents to display their dominance and affection. The act of presenting a gift to another person symbolized a caveman’s ability to support and provide for a family, making the process very attractive to females! It also made other cavemen respect them, since their giving of presents suggested success and power.

Typical gifts given among cavemen were teeth and stones, which were classed as keepsakes at the time. These gifts were widely appreciated since they could be carved into something special for the recipient, such as a necklace or other form of accessory, and could be displayed to everyone in the tribe with pride!

Ancient Egyptians

We can thank the Ancient Egyptians for the tradition of gift giving on birthdays! A pharaoh’s coronation day was considered more important than their actual day of birth, leading this day to become their ‘birthday’. This is because it was the day they were considered to have transformed into Gods and started a new life, making it very important for them and their civilization! Pharaohs were gifted with lots of special gifts to commemorate this day, such as jewelry and various crops, along with ceremonies and feasts.

Ancient Egyptians also buried lots of gifts with the deceased, as they believed gifts special to them would help with their transition into the afterlife! Wealthy Egyptians tended to be buried with more elaborate gifts, while ordinary Egyptians would be given more everyday items, such as bowls and food.

Ancient Greece

Religion had a big impact on the nature of gift giving in Ancient Greece! Greeks believed evil spirits would come to haunt a loved one on their birthday, so they would visit them to bring good wishes and gifts to try and prevent these spirits from appearing.

Interestingly, it was also from this that the tradition of blowing out candles emerged, since the Greeks would use their wish and the act of blowing out the candle to send a message to the Gods to protect the birthday girl or boy!

It was custom in Ancient Greece to welcome passing travelers into your home with gifts, in case they were actually Gods in disguise. Gifts were given to show emotion and build relationships, as well as offer aid and hospitality!

Ancient Rome

The Emperors of Ancient Rome were definitely familiar with receiving gifts! It was a tradition for them to receive a variety of gifts as per the rules of the Empire during the festival of Saturnalia. The festival intended to honor the god Saturn and was held on the 17th December, later continuing through to 23rd December. Emperors would often receive good luck tokens, figs, honey-cakes, dates and much more!

origins of giving gifts
Credit: Tasiia

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, valuable gifts were often food-based and were intended to be a symbol of power! If people wanted to get political or religious favors, or simply show their loyalty to the institutions, gift giving was certainly the way forward.

Books and manuscripts were also well received gifts, since they were expensive to make at the time and showed commitment to the gift receiver. The Middle Ages also saw a rise in romantic gifts given from men to women, with men performing love songs to women to win their affection, or presenting them with personalized garments! A particularly strange one was the act of sewing your own hair into clothes for your loved one – ew!

Another unusual but common type of gift during the Middle Ages was dowry. Dowry was the gift of money, property, livestock or other valuables given by a man to his loved one’s father, in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage! This gift was common courtesy in the Middle Ages, and was a way in which a man could put value on his potential spouse for approval from her father.

Native American Culture

A gift giving feast, called “Potlatch”, was practiced in Native American culture for thousands of years. It formed part of many different occasions, such as births, deaths and weddings, and attention was always focused on the gift giver rather than the receiver.

The ceremony intended to reaffirm the status of the gift giver, with the giving of expensive gifts being a sign of their wealth and power. The more expensive the gift, the more wealthy and powerful the individual would be seen to be! This made gift giving very important for the social hierarchies in Native American civilizations.

The Giving of the “Statue of Liberty”

The 100th anniversary of American Independence shows us a different kind of gift giving! On this particular occasion, a gift giving experience occurred between France and the United States – two countries, rather than individuals!

When the American Civil War had ended in 1865, Edouard de Laboulaye, a French historian, suggested that France build a statue as a gift to the United States to commemorate the nation’s success in creating a democratic state. The statue was to act as a symbol of the friendship between France and the United States, with the gift giving representing France’s desire to build a long-lasting relationship with America! It was intended to be designed for the 100th anniversary of American independence in 1876, and the statue being called the “Statue of Liberty” was to reflect the statue representing liberty, justice and democracy.

This kind of gift giving was a way to establish a relationship between the two nations, aiming to show that the two countries share the same ideals and should be allies for years to come!


After whaling crews in Alaska had returned from a hunt, it became a tradition for them to bestow their largest catch portions on other tribe members! This helped the crew earn the respect of the other tribe members, by showing their ability to provide and care for others before themselves. This is another example of how gift giving has often helped present the giver in a positive light to earn the respect of others!


Without a doubt, the biggest event in China each year is Chinese New Year! Unlike our nightly celebrations from the 31st December into the 1st January, Chinese New Year lasts for almost two weeks!

There is an important gift giving tradition in China for this occasion – any gifts must be wrapped in red wrapping paper or envelopes, since the color red is known to represent wealth and prosperity. This shows that you wish good fortune to the loved ones you are giving gifts to, and signifies a hopeful new year to all! In turn, the colors blue, black and white should be avoided, as they represent death and funerals. Interestingly, this is the same with the number 4! If, for example, someone was giving another money as a gift, they shouldn’t give them an amount with the number 4 in!


Italy has a particularly unusual gift giving tradition for weddings! Wedding guests buy parts of the groom’s tie, which had been cut up into lots of different pieces, and the money goes to the bride and groom as a symbol of starting their new life together! It’s almost like giving them a financial helping hand as they begin their life as a married couple. The guests would then keep the tie pieces as a souvenir of their special day, always helping them remember the occasion!


Children who are aged 3, 5 or 7 in Japan are especially lucky on their birthdays! Years ago, many children in Japan would pass away before reaching these ages, making it a tradition to doubly celebrate when children turn 3, 5 or 7.

As well as celebrating their actual birthday, children of these ages would visit a shrine and receive sweets from a priest, meaning they get to commemorate their birthdays twice in one year!


Diwali is India’s festival of light, taking place over 5 days and celebrated every year! As the most important yearly festival in the country, people celebrate the triumph of good over evil and exchange gifts with family and friends on the 4th day!

Common presents to give and receive on this special occasion are gift hampers and traditional Indian sweets.


You’ll always want to be invited to a birthday party in Russia! Everyone who attends a child’s birthday party in Russia traditionally receives a gift, not just the birthday boy or girl!

In this Russian tradition, gifts are hung from a clothes line and each child takes it in turn to pick a present from the line to take home. What a lovely, generous tradition that makes every child feel welcome and involved!

Middle East

The act of gift giving is very important in Arab culture, taking place in everyday life and not just for special occasions! Being hospitable and friendly is very much tied into Arab culture too, making it custom for gifts to be received and given on a multitude of occasions.

Even if a family is not very familiar with their neighbor, it’s tradition for a gift exchange to take place on every religious occasion. Families will even give gifts if they are simply invited into another’s home! With family at the center of life in the Middle East, extended families often have a close relationship and are invited to their special events.

This shows that gift giving is very important as a usual custom and for maintaining relationships with everyone around you, including family and those you don’t know too well!

history of gift giving

Gift Giving at Christmas

The tradition of gift giving at Christmas emerges from the religious story of Christmas! Gift giving is a reminder of the presents the Three Wise Men gave to Jesus when he was born, which took the form of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. The idea of giving a present is also related to God giving us a present when he brought Jesus into the world!

Gift giving at Christmas often seems to take place not just from family and friends, but from a magical figure often aimed at children. In England, as we’re sure you all know, we have Father Christmas or Santa Claus, who is known for delivering presents for little ones to open on Christmas morning!

Donating as a Modern Form of Gift Giving

Even more so these days, donating is becoming increasingly popular and can often times be more rewarding! Of course, we know the benefits of donating books near you to help support deserving local organizations and underprivileged children and familes! Check out our Book Donation Map to see how you can help!

book donation map

Psychology Behind Gift Giving

To truly understand the history of gift giving, we should look at the meaning behind gifts and why we feel that gift giving is an important part of any relationship!

As we all know, gift giving has become such a crucial part of maintaining and strengthening relationships with those around us. This sometimes makes gift giving quite a pressuring task, but followed by a fantastic feeling of reward! While the nature of gift giving has changed throughout the years, and may differ across cultures, the reasons why people give gifts has remained pretty much the same.

The psychology of gift giving is absolutely fascinating and helps us understand how taking part in gift giving as the recipient or the giver can have rewarding emotional benefits!


In essence, giving gifts is a way we can express our gratitude to those who are important to us in some way, or express affection and heartfelt feelings towards people we care deeply about. It could be a family member, a spouse, a colleague, or a new neighbor! No matter the relationship, gift giving has always been a key way of showing our appreciation to a particular person. It allows us to connect with people around us, creating a closer relationship with those in our lives. We’re able to strengthen our ties with certain people and enhance the tradition of gift giving.

As well as the gift recipient receiving something meaningful, the act of gift giving fills us with feelings of warmth and well being. It has been proven that there are fantastic emotional benefits to gain from giving presents to others! Studies have shown that people tend to feel happier about their own lives when they are able to give something special to a loved one, improving their state of mind. The person receiving the gift also benefits from enhanced well-being! They’re filled with happiness and gratitude when they see that a loved one has gone out of their way to present something especially to them.

Gift giving is a thoughtful way we can communicate our feelings when we can’t find the right words. If someone has experienced sad news, sometimes giving a gift to them can help show you care when you might be struggling to express your feelings in the right way.

Gift giving can also fill us with a special kind of happiness when giving the gift, such as writing a funny or inspiring message to accompany the present, such as writing messages in a baby shower book.

We’re able to show our adoration to others without feeling obliged to take part in an exchange. It removes the feeling that you’re simply giving someone a gift because they will give you one – you’re making the effort to give something when you know you won’t receive anything back, and this can fill us with a lovely rewarding feeling! This is the case with giving money to charity or buying a present for a pet.

According to research, men who gift more generously are more successful in attracting mates, but women are less motivated by romantic attraction and are more likely to give gifts to family and friends! This shows that men will give gifts to a potential mate as a sign of generosity, to intrigue them and to show that they’re able to provide! Women, on the other hand, are more motivated by creating and maintaining social bonds.