This season of the year – harvest time in the Northern Hemisphere – is often recognized as a time for giving thanks. Indeed, Canadian thanksgiving (Jour de l’action de grâce) was celebrated in October. In the US, Thanksgiving will be celebrated this week.
Tuesday, December 2 is officially recognized as “Giving Tuesday.” This is a day when, according to the Giving Tuesday website, “charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world will come together for one common purpose: to celebrate generosity and to give.”
Gift-giving is an ancient and ubiquitous tradition. It has been practiced throughout history in many forms and for many purposes. Sometimes gifts, including human sacrifices, were given to thank or to appease the deities. Often gifts were given to acknowledge an important event – a birth or a marriage.
A typical time to give gifts in Chinese tradition is at the Lunar New Year. People visit families and friends and bring gifts to give one another. When traveling to visit friends, people usually bring their local specialties (food, crafts, etc.). These gifts are typically sweet things such as chocolates and cookies. Money is also given in small red envelopes at the Lunar New Year and on happy special occasions such as weddings, the birth of a baby, and birthdays. The red color of the envelope symbolizes good luck. Red envelopes are given out by married couples to single people, especially to children or subordinates. Gifts are given for a baby’s one-month, 100-day, and one-year celebration as well.
In Jewish traditions, gifts are given for a person’s bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, the coming of age ceremony for boys and girls, respectively. For the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, people may give money or savings bond. Money is often given in multiples of 18, because this number is associated with the Jewish symbol of Chai, meaning “life. It also represents good fortune. For Chanukah, a festival of rededication, children typically receive gifts on each of the eight nights of celebration, while adults receive gifts on just the first night. There is a tradition about eight different levels of giving, called Maimonides’ “Ladder of Charity.” The lowest level is to give a gift unwillingly, making the recipient feel ashamed. The highest is giving something that allows the beneficiary to be self-reliant (providing a loan, giving of one’s time, and so on).
According to the Native American Encyclopedia, the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest of Canada “traditionally practiced some form of potlatch, or give-away ceremonies and customs, highlighted by the lavish distribution of goods and food to tribe members or those of other clans, villages, or tribes.”
In Muslim cultures, gifts are given at weddings and on the two major Muslim holidays: Eid al-Ftir (after the fasting month of Ramadhan) and Eid Al-Adha (when Muslims go on a pilgrimage). The pilgrims bring gifts home from Mecca (Zamzam water, nuts, and colored candy). Gifts are also given when you visit someone the first time, or when someone gets a new house or apartment, as well as for promotions and retirements.
Gifts are given for many occasions in Turkish traditions, particularly for engagements and weddings (for both the bride and the groom). Other gift-giving occasions include birthdays, the birth of a baby, graduation, a new home, and for the new year. The religious holiday, Seker Bayrami, which comes after the Muslims’ month of fasting, used to be rich with gifts for the children in the family. There is also a circumcision feast, which includes gifts for boys (often gold) is still very common in urban and rural environments.
In Korea, people exchange gifts on traditional holidays such as New Year’s Day and Chuseok, the Korean harvest festival. Usually younger people, employees, staff members, or students will pay a visit to their elders, employers, managers, or teachers to bring their gifts during those holidays. Gifts are typically food items such as meat, fruit, rice cakes, or sometimes gifts certificates. The original purpose of these visits and gifts may have been as an expression of gratitude for the care, help, and guidance of the elders.
In Germany, gifts are given for birthdays, when people retire, when someone leaves for a long period of time or for good, for graduation from secondary school or college, for reconciliation, and as signs of appreciation, love, or sympathy. Children receive gifts when a new sibling is born.
There are many occasions for gift-giving in Japan. A new year’s gift is normally money in a special envelope, but there is also a time of gift-giving in July and December. These gifts are called ochuugen and oseibo. Their purpose is for the giver to thank others for their kindness (co-workers, bosses, teachers, neighbors, relatives, etc.). Another tradition is temiyage, a small gift that you bring when you visit someone’s home or meet someone for the first time. Omiyage refers to small gifts one brings back home to friends and family after going on a journey. In earlier times, when traveling was difficult, travelers’ friends and family gave them money to help out with the trip. As a token of appreciation (and to thank the gods for a safe return), the travelers brought something back to those who had supported them.
Australia is a country of many immigrant cultures, so various communities have their own cultural and religious customs. For instance, in Catholic families, children would receive a religious gift on “rites of passage” occasions such as First Communion and Confirmation. These would be such things as a Bible or Missal. If you go to someone’s home for dinner, you will take them a gift – something like flowers, chocolates, or a bottle of wine. For Italian families, celebrating Epiphany (January 6) is usually associated with La Befana, a kindly old lady on a broom, who brings coal to bad boys and girls but candy to the good children.
When a child is born in India, generally, the new mother receives gold or cash from both sides of her family while the spouse generally gives her a piece of jewelry. Grandparents also give money or gold to the baby when the mother and the new baby first come home from the hospital, as a little blessing ceremony. When the child of a close relative or friend visits someone’s home, they always receive a small gift as a blessing from the elders of that house. Elders also give their children and grand-children money for their birthdays, wedding anniversaries, when they leave for higher education, if they accomplished something commendable, and so on.
There are two main occasions when Senegalese give gifts. For weddings, friends and family give items they believe the couple will need in their new home. The most popular gifts are dishes and beddings. At a baptism, the child’s grandmother gives a gift of money to her daughter-in-law.
In South Africa, some specific cultural and religious precepts govern specific practices for particular groups. For example, Hindu people exchange gifts during Diwali, the festival of lights. The Zulu have a marriage process involving gift exchange practices that begin during lobola (dowry) negotiations and lead up to the actual wedding day. The exchange of gifts between the two families is more than a token of love: It is a symbol of unifying the two families even in the spiritual realm. Gift-giving practices are sometimes a serious matter of ancestral worship. For example, a bride is not completely accepted by her in-laws until she has adhered to the gift-giving and gift-exchange rites. When a young woman comes of age, her parents must throw a party, slaughter a cow, and shower her with gifts. Some strongly believe that if this custom is not followed, that young woman will have problems because the ancestors have not be notified of her coming of age.
In the Netherlands, gifts are given on Dec 5th — the Eve of St. Nicholas. This legendary character may be based on Bishop Nicholas, who lived in Greece in the 4th century. (He now supposedly lives in Madrid, Spain and comes to the Netherlands by boat.) Weeks before, children put their shoes by the fireplace or on a windowsill. Little gifts are miraculously appear in the shoes overnight.
The Christian tradition of gift-giving at Christmas seems to stem from the three magi having brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby in the manger. A modern version of this gift-giving is that Santa Claus comes down the chimney and puts goodies in the children’s stockings, which have been hung on the fireplace mantle. When I grew up (the oldest of six children), our stockings often included devilishly tricky puzzles – no doubt a strategy devised by Santa’s helpers (our parents) to keep us busy for a while so that they could get a little extra sleep!
This season of the year is a time for TIRF also to give and receive gifts. You have already read about the new reference lists (noted above) which are free for anyone to use. The wonderful Doctoral Dissertation Grants (made possibly by the British Council and Cambridge English Assessment) were described in the September issue of TIRF Today. But we also want to give you a light-hearted, seasonally appropriate gift, which will be sent to you by email on Giving Tuesday. We hope you enjoy it, and we hope it will motivate you to give back to TIRF.
If you would like be part of TIRF’s work, please join us by making a donation to TIRF. Gifts may be transmitted online via credit card by clicking here. Checks drawn on a US-based bank account and made out to “TIRF” may be sent to the Foundation’s address at: 177 Webster St., #220, Monterey, CA 93940.
Many thanks to the following people for sharing gift-giving traditions: Lillian Wong, Xueting Wang, Dilek Tokay, Tarana Patel, Thuli Phetla, David Nunan, Naoko Matsuo, Tim Marquette, Joe LoBianco, Mitch Legutke, Heekyeong Lee, Enas Hammad, Lynn Goldstein, Ann Glazer, Fatima Esseili, Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, Edgard Coly, Netta Avineri, Kholoud Al-Thubaiti, Mansoor Al-Surmi, and Muhammad Abdel Latif.