The act of giving gifts is universal to humanity. We give gifts as a way to celebrate special occasions, honor accomplishments and strengthen relationships, and we build traditions around gift-giving that are cherished and handed down for generations. In celebration of the biggest gift-giving season of the year, M.S. Rau has compiled a list of some of the most festive and intriguing gift-giving traditions from around the world and across history. Taking inspiration from these traditions, we have also included a curated collection of some of our favorite gift-worthy items.
Gift-Giving In Ancient Rome
The tradition of giving gifts is practically as old as human history. The ancient Romans exchanged gifts known as “sigillaria,” typically small pottery and wax figurines resembling deities, during Saturnalia, a holiday in December celebrating the god Saturn. Saturnalia was a popular holiday into the 4th century until the Roman Empire transferred to Christian rule. But even then, in part because of Saturnalia’s midwinter timing, several of its traditions became associated with Christmas, such as exchanging gifts.
The Grand Tour
The Grand Tour, mainly enjoyed by English men belonging to the upper classes, was a rite of passage intended to round out one’s classical education. While visiting sites throughout Italy on this tour, affluent European tourists purchased antiquities and objets d’art to bring back home as mementos and gifts for friends and family. It presented an excellent opportunity to patronize the most talented artisans from across the continent, particularly in Italy and France. For instance, located in the gardens by the Louvre, the Palais Royal was redesigned under Louis Philippe II as one of the premier early shopping centers in Europe. It was an essential stop for Grand Tourists wanting to return home with fashionable gifts for loved ones.
Perhaps the most famous gift-giver in the world, Santa Claus was inspired by Saint Nicholas of Myra, known as a provider for the poor and sick. One of the most beloved saints of the Christian faith, Nicholas is the patron saint of many, from sailors and children to wolves and pawnbrokers, and he was revered for his profound kindness. It was said that he brought gifts to children for an entire month beginning on his feast day, December 6. That legend was eventually condensed to the Christmas tradition of St. Nick bringing gifts to children all around the world on Christmas Eve.
Speaking of Santa, it is interesting to note that the practice of giving toys at Christmas was not always so widespread. It began in part in England with the 1798 book Practical Education by Maria Edgeworth. Drawing on Enlightenment ideas about child development, the book stated that a child’s imagination benefitted from playing with toys. Edgeworth concluded that children “require to have things which exercise their senses of their imagination, their imitative and inventive powers.” Toys should not be expensive or too precious to be used, but should “invite play and discovery.” This book helped pave the way for the explosion in popularity of toys as Christmas presents in the 19th century.
Interestingly, before the popularization of mass-marketed toys, very young European children were often given delicate trinkets. The custom of giving silver to newborns dates back to the 18th century. Practical gifts like cups, plates, spoons or other small silver items were often engraved and given to a baby to symbolize an investment in the child’s future. Additionally, silver is the customary gift to commemorate 25 years of marriage. This practice likely began with the 18th-century German tradition of “silberne hochzeit,” where husbands presented their wives wreaths of silver-colored foliage.
Napoléon Bonaparte gave his beloved Josephine the gift of a sapphire and diamond ring to celebrate their engagement in 1796. Sapphire engagement rings have also proved popular with royals like Princess Diana and Kate Middleton. In the 18th century, sapphires were popular symbols of romantic love, commitment and fidelity. The tradition of the diamond engagement ring likely began in the Renaissance when Archduke Maximilian of Austria gave Mary of Burgundy a point-cut diamond ring ahead of their marriage in 1477.
From the 14th to the late 19th century in rural Scotland, the first Monday after New Year’s Day was known as Handsel Monday, and it was an occasion for giving tokens of appreciation, usually small monetary gifts to one’s children, servants or delivery people. These gifts served as tokens of good luck for the coming year.
Ancient Egypt was the first culture known to celebrate birthdays. The Egyptians believed that on a pharaoh’s coronation day, he was reborn as a god. This day was celebrated as his true day of birth, and the new pharaoh was showered with gifts by his subjects.