The giving of gifts has a long history – longer than many might imagine. In fact, the practice may even prepare the period when humans first walked upright. Studies of primates have revealed that even today Chimpanzees give gifts of foods to females in order to curry favor and cement their place in the community hierarchy. In archeological studies it seems that our ancestors carried over the gift giving tradition. It appears that the more gifts (and the greater their value) that early humans gave females the greater would be the number of potential mates he would gather around himself – and the greater his chance of siring offspring. In essence it seems that gift giving conferred a variety of evolutionary advantages.
But there appears also to be a positive effect for those who give gifts in terms of their standing in wider society. In Native American culture the ‘potlatch’ feast to celebrate births, unions or mourn the passing of important figures featured gift giving. The higher the value of the gift ideas for everyone and the actual gift the higher the reputation of the gift givers clan or family.
According to Homer, author of the famous ‘Odyssey’ Greeks should demonstrate generosity. Not only in the form of physical gifts, but in acts of kindness and charity. Homer advised that the human spirit are stronger with acts such as providing shelter to strangers, extending hospitality or in other charitable actions. In his opinion this form of gift giving was essential to maintain social order.
But gift giving has been a force within politics as well. In signals a meeting of minds across borders – and a commitment to a set of common ideals. Take for instance one of the most famous gifts ever given by one government to another – The Statue of Liberty. France gifted Lady Liberty to the U.S. to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Of course this gift was not simply a sign that France recognized the commitment of the U.S.to the concept of Liberty, which had its political origins (at least in modern times) in France during the revolution. The story is slightly more complex than that – but a gift is still a gift, no matter its size and prominence.
Gifts can also come from the heart – expressions of devotion and love – and one of the most famous was a gift that extended from this mortal realm into the hereafter. Close by the city of Agra in India one finds what is perhaps one of the most beautiful buildings in the world – and a monument to love. It is, of course the Taj Mahal, which was built as a gift to the wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Started in 1632 it houses the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The Taj Mahal today is also the final resting place of the emperor himself. In today’s currency the total cost of the Taj Mahal and its grounds would be in the region of U.S. $916 million, however they do say that you cannot put a price on love. Today the practice of gift giving between politicians is till practiced. Visiting dignitaries are often provided with tokens of appreciation and friendship by leaders of other countries when they visit.
But are gifts always welcome? In certain cases the joy of receiving a gift can quickly turn to regret – and in the case of the citizens of Troy accepting a gift from the Greeks, in this case a giant wooden horse was to have tragic consequences. Not surprisingly this is the origins of the saying ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’. That is not the only example of gifts that would not have been created by great joy. The King of Siam gifted albino elephants to courtiers who had incurred his displeasure. They would be ruined by the costs of keeping such a beast – but would not dare to further enrage the King by disposing of it.
Today we give gifts for a number of reasons- many of those reasons are the same as those that were the reasons behind gifting throughout the ages. We celebrate love, devotion and care. We honor those who have achieved significant milestones in their lives. We celebrate annual events through the giving of gifts, or simply give a gift as a token of friendship and for the sheer joy of basking in the happiness of others when they receive a gift that has been carefully considered and comes from the heart. The practice of gift giving may very well be hardwired into the human psyche, but that does not make it any less valuable as a practice to cement our relationships with others and – as Homer recognized, celebrate that which makes us human, compassion, love and gratitude.