“For so many centuries, the exchange of gifts has held us together. It has made it possible to bridge the abyss, where language struggles.” —Barry López, About This Life
What is the meaning of a gift? What are we communicating when we present a present? Many ancient societies engaged in gift giving as a way to make peace or unite clans, and to bring individuals or communities closer together. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese and many other societies utilized gifting for these purposes.
In other cases, gifting was done as an offering to the gods in exchange for good health, good harvests or abundant fertility. Sometimes it was an offering to certain members of society, such as hunters, priests or elders, and was one way of increasing your chances of peacefully co-existing with the elements and with neighboring societies. In The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies,” Marcel Mauss explained that “gifts to men and to gods aimed … at buying peace (and) In this way, evil influences are kept at bay, even when not personified.”
Take the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, for example. This end-of-year winter sowing and solstice celebration was full of appreciation and social equality. Gifts were given to children and poorer citizens, and the gifting lasted off and on until the Kalends, the Roman New Year on January 1. James Grout from the University of Chicago states, “It was an occasion for celebration, visits to friends, and the presentation of gifts, particularly wax candles (cerei), perhaps to signify the returning light after the solstice, and sigillaria.”
Whatever its beginnings, gifting is an important part of human communication and interactions, and it is often said that the person who gives a gift experiences greater pleasures and joys than the one who receives it.
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