Why Gifts Are Exchanged
And the best gift you can give

Why Gifts Are Exchanged

We all regularly give gifts, but have you ever stopped to think why gifts are exchanged? There are so many occasions – Christmas, Birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, New Baby, Retirement… Just a simple thank you. Sometimes it can seem like just a big marketing ploy to get us spend more money on cards, wrapping paper and of course gifts.

The giving and receiving of gifts can be defined as social custom. Many people would probably say that it is a voluntary act. However in most cultures it’s really an expected social behaviour. We give gifts because we’re supposed to. Ask yourself this – would you turn up to someone’s birthday party you’d been invited to without even a small token? Not many of us would. And although I’m sure we’ve all threatened to not celebrate say Valentine ’s Day, how many of us have later caved into social expectations and at least bought a card?

Did it all start with Jesus?

There are various thoughts on why gifts are exchanged. The most common probably comes back to the Bible and the belief that certainly Christmas gift giving originated here. That’s a whole blog post in its own right. It’s not something I’m going to go into detail on here. If it’s something you want to delve deeper into I suggest you read “Bible verses about Exchange of Presents, Origin of” by Herbert W. Armstrong (1892-1986).


Jesus Christ

And if you just want the condensed version, he states that no gifts were exchanged in the Bible. Yes the wise men came bearing gifts, but it was long after Jesus was actually born. And the gifts were just given to Jesus, not traded between each other. He actually states that again these Three Kings were merely following custom as it was even then.

The Gift Exchange Cycle

The gift exchange cycle includes obligations to give, to receive and to return. There are certain times and dates that it’s expected to give a gift. The main ones in the western world would be Christmas, anniversaries, dinner parties and of course Birthdays. Failure to take part in the giving of gifts could lead to disapproval from peers, or a loss of prestige. The refusal to accept a gift that is given to you can be seen as a refusal to engage in social relations. It can actually distance you from would-be recipients. There is then the expected reciprocation of the gift. It is also important to consider the value of the gift given compared to the value of the gift given in return. Social customs dictate that the value of the gift given in return should be equal to or higher than the original gift. This avoids putting less value on the relationship than the giver.

In the “Gift Exchange” article on Encyclopaedia Britannica, reference is made to Marcel Mauss. He made an extended application of the idea of gift exchange stressing the social accompaniments of the exchange rather than just its economic functions. The exchange of gifts may not only provide a recipient with what amounts to credit for a period but also confirms, upkeeps, and conveys a social relationship in terms of status. The concept of reciprocity behind gift exchange has been extended into the field of ritual and religion. Some sacrifices may be viewed as gifts to supernatural powers. From these a return in the form of benefit and approval is expected. The transfer of women in marriage between kin groups or reciprocal social relations, are similar in terms of obligations and types of relationships to gift exchange. Gift exchange such as the potlatch (q.v.) of the Northwest Pacific coast Indians has also been analysed as an adaptive subsistence aspect of a socioeconomic system allowing for redistribution of surplus wealth and food in certain ecological settings.

Giving & Receiving Hands

It can go on and on. Our whole lives really revolve around the giving and receiving of gifts in one way or another. Parents can be heard to proclaim that their new-born child is a gift. As that child gives joy to its parents, so the parents shower it with either love or presents.

The Real Point of Gift-Giving

Peter Bregman writes in “The Real Point of Gift-Giving” that beneath the idea that we give gifts because it’s customary to do so, we give gives to show appreciation. A gift is really given because we want to show that appreciate someone and the valuable role they play in our lives.

So surely then it would follow that the bigger, more expensive the gift, the more appreciation we are showing? As the giver we might expect that, but in fact the receiver doesn’t always feel that. Sometimes it can feel like favour is being bought. Or just that the gift isn’t sincere. His real argument is that it isn’t the gift that shows our appreciation. It is the way in which it is given.


I bet if we were to poll the people in our lives on what the best gift they’ve ever received was, it would rarely be the most expensive thing they’ve ever been given. More often than not, it would be the meticulously planned surprise party, or the homemade card. The gifts that show time and effort are the real winners, not simply flashing the cash.

In The Workplace

Appreciation, in its purest sense, is accepting the other person just as they are. In business, this is hard to achieve. So much of the rewards are tied into performance. Take performance reviews – they’re all about looking at our strengths AND weaknesses. Really, this is about telling people how great they are. Straight after we hit them with improvements they need to make in the coming year.

The great works Christmas do usually involves the MD making a big speech about what a great year the company has had. That then turns into what they want you to achieve in the coming year also. It’s quite impersonal, because it’s aimed at the entire workforce. It’s also about what we can/have/could achieve and doesn’t just appreciate us for what we are.

Bonuses don’t fare much better. They are rarely discussed, often just handed over or left on desks. They generally focus on what we achieved, not just who we are. And because they come with no big speech, no personal touch, they often leave the recipient still feel under-appreciated.

The Handwritten Note

The best gift we can give someone? It costs nothing and tells people why you appreciate them. This idea can work just as well in the workplace as it can in your personal life. Sometimes we don’t have much cash to spend. Or maybe we just don’t know what the perfect gift is for someone. Something we can all do is put pen to paper and appreciate someone for what they do.

Sometimes we may be required to do this for someone we feel conflicted about. We may not like everything about them, but it’s important we remember this isn’t a performance review. It’s a gift. And therefore we should think and write only about the things that we see as positive in that person. Perhaps they are loud and disruptive at work, but in doing so they brighten everyone’s mood and get everyone talking. Focus on the good in what they do. Give them the gift of seeing their positive qualities through your eyes.

The Psychology of Gift Giving

Olivia Goldhill’s article entitled “Far from being selfless gestures, giving gifts creates a personal debt” has a fascinating take on the debt that is exchanged along with the gifts. I highly recommend you give it a read if this side of gift-giving interests you. The following section is taken in excerpts from her article.

Dimitri Mortelmans was a sociology professor at Antwerp University in Belgium. He explains that there is more to giving gifts than meets the eye. “Gift-giving is one of the ancient early topics in sociology,” he says. “There’s a whole world behind gift-giving that goes very close to the basics of living together.” This shows us that the giving of a gift is actually a physical symbol of having a personal relationship with that person. It shows our social ties to them and helps bring us closer together.

At the same time the giving of one gift also creates a debt. In giving a gift of a certain value, you are putting the recipient in debt to you. They should reciprocate the gift with one of similar value. If they were to give something of less value, it would mean that they are putting less value on your relationship than you do. Consequently, if they spend more, they are again unbalancing the relationship. Causing upset and awkwardness as the debt goes back to the original giver.

So then how do thank-you gifts such as teachers gifts work out? They don’t usually involve an exchange of gifts as it’s usually just the student giving a thank you gift to the teacher. We view that the debt is evened out because the teacher has performed an act of such value to us, that they don’t need to repay our gift. The same can be said for any thank-you gift.

Delayed Exchange

Birthday gifts are not excluded from any of this. Yes – they are not like Christmas gifts where the debt is immediately repaid. The debt is simply delayed. We give a gift on someone’s birthday, and in 6 months-time it is socially expected that they return the favour and give us a gift for our birthday.

Strengthening Relationships

We learn about the value of giving from a young age. When we get good marks at school, we see the joy it brings our parents. That is a gift in its own way. It is when we start to learn that giving can make us happier than receiving. These gifts are not about how much is spent. The measure of their success comes from how happy we can make the recipient feel.

Gift giving is said to strengthen any relationship, whether that be friendships, loved ones or even work colleagues. Giving a gift says that you have thought about the recipient. It shows that you know them well enough to give a great gift. It shows that you care about them enough to spend your hard earned cash on them.


There are many reasons why gifts are exchanged, and there are many more reasons why they are given today. Take some time to think carefully about your gift-giving in the future. Take on board that the old cliché “It’s the thought that counts” couldn’t be truer.

It’s what you write in that card that will touch the recipient.

It’s the thought you have put into the gift you’ve bought them, not how much you spent on it. That will show them the time and care you think they are worthy of.

It’s the love and care you put into the wrapping and presentation of the gift that will heighten the receiver’s excitement about it. That will ensure they get the most out of the whole experience.

After all, we give with our hearts not our wallets.

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