Giving gifts on birthdays is a universal custom all around the world. It’s such a normal part of birthdays and birthday celebrations today.
Why do people give birthday gifts? How is the act of giving presents important on birthdays?
Birthdays symbolise the anniversary you came to this world. They mark the significance of your existence, contributions and unique personality – and perhaps what others have sacrificed for you, which you may not always agree with.
When someone’s birthday approaches, you might start thinking of something to get them. It could be a big or small present, with a bit of thought or a great deal of thought put into it.
People give birthday gifts for different reasons, for reasons personal and impersonal. Cultural beliefs and social contexts are often factors why some are keen on gifts to recognise birthday occasions. Who the birthday person is and how they have impacted your life are also influential factors.
Here are some reasons why people give gifts on birthdays.
Giving presents to someone on their special day is a longstanding historical tradition in some families and generations. It may be tied to bigger standing beliefs that have quite some importance. It’s only natural to continue giving gifts on birthdays according to sacrosanct conventions, respecting established hierarchies and what has always been.
Dating back to ancient times, the Romans marked their birthdays and other’s birthdays with lavish banquets and gift giving. Scholarly editor Kathryn Argetsinger discusses this in her Birthday Rituals paper: back then such birthday celebrations intersect between the spheres of social relations and Roman cult practices.
As Argetsinger also writes, the exchange of items or offerings (such as birthday poems) is a possible means to observe one’s personal genius or Juno on their birthday. Similarly, in Ancient Egypt pharaohs were presented with special gifts commemorating their ‘becoming birth of God’ day, and this giving tradition is still common practice among Egyptians on their birthdays today.
As such, birthday gifting traditionally is a marker of importance and status. Chinese culture celebrates certain ages, with red packets common gifts for younger birthdays to attract abundance and the gift of large banquets for someone aged 60 to honour a full life cycle.
2. Ward off evil spirits
Alongside tradition, gift giving on birthdays is believed to offer protection and strength. During Ancient Greek civilisation, people believed evil spirits haunted the birthday person so they would celebrate and gift gifts as blessings to ward off these energies.
As Ralph and Adeline Linton write in their book The Lore of Birthdays, the idea of birthday wishes was rooted in magic. They suggest positive birthday wishes bring good fortune around you and your personal spirits on your birthday.
3. Love, care and appreciation
Perhaps you give someone a birthday gift to tell them that their existence is important to you. You want them to know you love, care and appreciate them, and they matter to you and have a place in your life after yet another year – especially if you are close to them.
4. Social pressure
You might feel peer pressured into giving the birthday person a gift when others are giving gifts, giving for the sake of giving. This could be the case if you’re part of a social or work group and have to keep up appearances and pleasantries to get along with others.
In the past I had some colleagues who liked celebrating their birthday at work. Usually there’d be an afternoon tea for the birthday person. You’d either have to chip in a few dollars for a gift or bring a snack to the party.
If someone throws a big birthday party with a long guest list and you’re invited, it’s generally polite to bring something for them. After all, there’s quite a bit of effort that goes into putting together a birthday party for people to enjoy.
5. Mark milestones
You might give someone a birthday gift to celebrate how far they’ve come and acknowledge what they achieved over the past year. Or it could’ve been a challenging year for them and you want them to have a treat.
As mentioned previously, in Chinese culture when someone is mature, they’re considered wiser. Presenting a gift to a mature Chinese person on their birthday is a way to honour their wisdom acquired so to speak.
6. To help someone out
Sometimes you just want someone to have a good day on their birthday. You’re inclined to give them the gift of a helping hand. You offer to do them a favour as you want to make their life easier on their birthday, showing up for them.
After all, birthdays might be important to you and you like the feeling that comes with celebrating your birthday – and you want others to feel the same good feeling as well.
You give a birthday gift because you want to build or maintain a connection in your life. Perhaps you benefit from this connection, or you and the birthday person mutually share a deep relationship together. So a birthday gift is a way to show this relationship is important to you year after year.
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Most of the time you don’t give a stranger a gift on their birthday. You generally know the birthday person in the first place.
As such, birthday gift giving is often an act of intimacy. When you put careful thought into a birthday gift, you prioritise the birthday person and another year of their existence as a part of your life. Your relationship with them is not an unforgettable, mundane transaction but a meaningful one.
The act of gift giving is arguably tied to the construction of social intimate identities of yourself and others. As the giver you unconsciously project your personality and an imagination of who the recipient is onto your chosen gift. The person receiving it has a choice of accepting this identity projection on them. Sociologist Marcus Mauss writes in his book The Gift that gifting is an expression, describing a gift as a ‘total social fact’ imbued with spiritual mechanisms.
Similarly in his paper The Social Psychology of the Gift, psychologist Barry Schwartz suggests the presentation of a gift is an imposition of identity:
‘Such gifts reveal an important secret: the idea which the recipient evokes in the imagination of the giver.’
As I wrote in 7 Reasons To Not Celebrate Your Birthday, not everyone is keen on birthday attention. Some don’t want birthday gifts and probably don’t appreciate your generous gift gesture, which can turn out to be a waste of gift giving.
Giving presents on birthdays these days is certainly not compulsory. Personally I respect people when they say they don’t want anything on their birthday and don’t argue with them, and don’t get them a present. Instead I’d spend some time with them around their solar return. It’s a subtle way on my part to show them they are important to me.
There are different kinds of birthday gifts, tangible and intangible. You could gift a new phone or a box of chocolates, or an experience such as a membership pass or voucher. The closer you are to the birthday person, you are more likely to put more thought into how they want to celebrate their birthday (or not) and their birthday gift.
When you give someone a birthday gift, you often think about their personality. You may wonder if the gift(s) you have in mind will match their personality and tastes. Or if it’s too pricey or extravagant for their liking. When coming up with a birthday gift for someone, it can be a test of how well you know them – and how much they matter to you.
Just as it’s a personal thing for someone to receive a birthday gift, it’s also a personal thing for you when you give someone a birthday gift.
Do you or don’t you give birthday gifts?