When the Neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II wanted to give his wife, Queen Amytis a gift that reminded her of her homeland, he gave her the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. When a group of President Truman’s fellow Missourians wanted to honour his accomplishments, they gifted the White House a bowling alley. And when the French wanted to strengthen bonds with the United States, they sent a massive copper structure we now call the Statue of Liberty. 


Throughout history and across the globe, gifting has played a central role in strengthening our interpersonal relationships. In fact, the giving and receiving of presents is so fundamental to humanity that it may be hardwired into our DNA: Scientists have found that our closest primate cousins, bonobos and chimpanzees, give each other gifts of food and tools, and humans likely have been giving gifts since the first caveman handed a shiny tooth or colourful rock to a potential mate. Through the millennia, gifting has remained universal to humans the world over, even as the traditions, rules, and superstitions of individual cultures have evolved. Here are a few gifting cultures and rituals that reveal a lot about us as a people – 


We Are Superstitious by Nature

When the Chinese new year comes around, red envelopes filled with cash fly alongside the fireworks, exchanged between friends and family in China, Vietnam, Singapore, and other Asian countries as a way to welcome the Lunar New Year and spread good fortune between loved ones. On its face, the ritual may seem straightforward, but the rules behind the red envelopes all come down to luck. For example, the amount of money inside each envelope must always be an even number—since even numbers are considered auspicious—but should never contain the numeral 4, because that word sounds like “death” in Mandarin.

It’s not just about the money, though: The envelopes themselves have significant meaning, as red is a traditional Chinese colour of luck. Indeed, the whole envelope tradition evolved out of a belief that coins strung on red string would ward off a demon that came for children on New Year’s Eve. (The envelopes are often called yasui qian, or “suppressing ghost money.”) As the years went by, the coins turned to cash, and the red string became red envelopes. Today, there are even popular Chinese cellphone apps that send digital money in pixelated red packets.


We Rely on Community

At a housewarming party, everyone knows to bring booze or food—but in ancient times, housewarmings used to be a lot more literal. Originally, neighbours and friends brought over actual firewood to a newly constructed house. The wood would fuel the fire to heat the new home. Once the fire was going, the community would eat, drink, and be merry. In France, the term for housewarming is pendaison de crémaillère, or “hanging the chimney hook.” This refers to the hook that would hold the cooking pot over the fire in medieval homes. After the hook and pot were in place, the communal meal could begin.


Today we have central heating and air-conditioning units, but the tradition of friends, neighbors, and family all coming together to eat and drink together lives on. Modern guests bring gifts of wine, liquor, desserts, and snacks to a housewarming. What really matters is that everyone is there together. 


Our Intentions Matter

Our perception of gifts is shaped by the intent behind them. Take the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania, who consider it a great honor to spit on a present before handing it over—that’s right, spit. For the Maasai, spit is a blessing. They spit for greetings, at weddings, and on newborn babies. The Maasai traditionally live entirely off their herds of cattle. They eat the meat, drink the milk, and sometimes even drink the blood. Because of this, water and grass are sacred. Water and grass are what the cow turns into milk. To spit is to share one’s own precious water with another person. 

No matter where you are in the world, intention matters, according to Dr. Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. “The question is, what are you trying to convey with the gift?” she says. “Are you just trying to check someone off the list? Are you trying to show the person that you care about them?” If you want to show you care, you have to consider how someone will receive the gift. “If you spend a lot of money and buy me an exquisite, first-edition book of French poetry,” she points out, “that’s not going to do a lot for me, because I don’t speak French. It’s not going to make me feel cared for.”


We Judge Gifts by Their Cover

The saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But sometimes we can’t help it; we are visual creatures. This is especially true of gift-giving. Studies have shown that people rate the exact same present higher if it’s wrapped in beautiful paper and ribbons than if it’s left unwrapped. Perhaps that’s why we’ve been wrapping our presents for as long as we’ve been giving them. Likely, paper was used for wrapping before it was used for writing. Wrapping paper dates all the way back to the Han dynasty in China. Some Eastern countries have long used cloth to wrap presents, such as the colourful, patterned bojagi wrapping cloths used in Korea that can be traced back to at least the Three Kingdoms Period.

How a package should be wrapped, and in what colours, differs around the world. In Egypt, gifts are typically wrapped twice, in two different colours. In the United States, many parents will wrap every single Christmas present in bright paper even if the gift is something as large and obvious as a bicycle. Many countries also avoid specific colours when wrapping because they are associated with funerals and mourning, including white (China), green and blue (Thailand), and purple (South America).

So no matter what colour or form a gift is wrapped in, every present gets a boost from wrapping. Even though we tend to throw the torn-apart wrapping paper in the garbage, careful presentation increases the value of a present. Plus, ripping open a gift is just plain fun.


We Value Ritual

After having found the perfect gift, purchased it, and carefully wrapped it in beautiful packaging, you may think you’re finished. You’re not. One of the most important aspects of gift-giving anywhere in the world is actually handing over the present. If you don’t do so with the right ritual, you might offend the other person, regardless of how nice your present is. In China, India, and many other Asian countries, it is considered proper etiquette for the recipient to refuse a present, often two or three times. The gift-giver should keep offering until it is accepted, while also humbly insisting that the present isn’t too valuable. This back-and-forth (“Take it”—“I couldn’t”—“Take it!”—“No way”—“TAKE IT!!”—“Well, if you insist”) might seem unnecessary, but it’s considered bad manners to skip this social ceremony.


While these practices may be more ritualized in some countries versus others, the underlying principle is universal. Dr. Michael Laver, from the department of history at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says that “on the surface it looks like it’s novel to East  Asia, but of course it’s not. If you were to go to somebody’s house, you may have taken great pains to pick out a particular bottle of wine for a present. But when you take the bottle of wine, the host might say, ‘Oh, this is a really great gift!’ And you would say, ‘No, no. It’s just something that I picked up.’”


We Give to Get Back

No matter what culture one comes from, giving is almost never a truly selfless act, since reciprocity of some kind is expected. “We’re human beings and we’re calculating people and we never do anything without some sort of eye toward the future,” says Dr. Laver. The French sociologist Marcel Mauss, in his seminal study of gift-giving, The Gift, explained that social bonds are reinforced by these mutual exchange of gifts. He noted, “In theory such gifts are voluntary but in fact they are given and repaid under obligation.” This is true whether two countries are forging diplomatic relations or you’re buying a round of drinks for friends at the bar. 


On a basic level, we give gifts because we’re supposed to. On certain occasions — birthdays, anniversaries, dinner parties, the end of the year — it’s customary.


Underlying that custom is an important purpose: appreciation. We give people gifts to show them that we are grateful for them and value the role they play in our lives.

That said, you can do everything right in gift-giving and still not make the other person feel special enough – because, at the end of the day, only gifts don’t express appreciation, people do. And when people don’t express it, neither do their gifts. Today, gift-giving has evolved to unusual, personalised gifts – experience-sharing or gifting (a trip to a strawberry picking farm on the weekend, or a weekend at a spa resort), donating to a favourite charity on behalf of someone special or even picking from a coveted wish-list you know a friend has. But, whichever shape or form it may take, gifting has always been a huge part of human life and will continue to be.