Traditions of Giving

“You only have what you give. It’s by spending yourself that you become rich.”
— writer Isabel Allende, from her essay for the radio show “This I Believe”

In cultures across the globe, gift-giving is a practice that takes many shapes and forms. But no matter where a gift is given, the sentiment comes from a collective need to show appreciation for life, love and community. Here are some traditions of gift giving to inspire you this season and beyond!

Native traditions
Even before the Pilgrims reached American shores, American Indians had long had traditions of giving thanks, which included ceremonies, feasts, dances, sports and games. “If an animal was hunted for food, special thanks were also given to the Creator and to the spirit of the animal. If a plant was harvested and used for any purpose, or a bird or a fish, if an anthill was disrupted, gratitude and acknowledgment were given for the little ones’ lives. To this day it is the same with most Native people.”

The first Thanksgiving
The original Thanksgiving probably took place somewhere near the end of July 1623. The Plymouth Pilgrims had been suffering from a drought that had destroyed much of their crop and a shipment of supplies was long overdue. Suddenly, the drought broke and news arrived that the shipment of supplies was safely on its way. There was likely no feast, but a church service to give thanks and praise for the good news and the temporary end of hardship.

From the Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits,” Kwanzaa is a new African American holiday, created in 1966 by Dr. Mulana Karenga, an author and activist who believed that African American culture could be strengthened and revitalized through the use of African ritual. Kwanzaa takes place between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1, and is primarily a celebration of life, family and community. Each day of the celebration is based on one of seven principles: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). Black, red and green are the colors of Kwanzaa and can be used in decoration. Gifts are mainly given to children and must always include a book of some kind, to represent and encourage learning, and a symbol of African heritage to strengthen a sense of history and connectedness to the rich traditions of the past.

Hanukkah and gifts
Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah, an eight-night celebration usually beginning on Dec. 25, which honors the miracles that God performed for the Jewish people. In the U.S., many have adopted the non-Jewish custom of gift-giving to add to the festive nature of the season. It is stressed, however, that gift-giving is not the main focus of the holiday. Often, parents will give their children small gifts and then allow them to buy gifts for others or donate their time to teach them the value of performing miracles for others, one of the foundational lessons of Hanukkah celebrations.

Omiyage – Japanese gifts
Gift-giving is an integral part of Japanese life. The two main gift-giving seasons are late spring and late fall, although gifts are exchanged throughout the year for various occasions and reasons. In Japanese, the word for gift is omiyage. There is a protocol for all things related to gift-giving. How the gift is wrapped, the occasion for the gift and how the gift is presented are all-important. Because the Japanese give gifts all the time, prepackaged generic gifts are common. Stacks and stacks of these instant gifts can be found at train stations and in specialty shops.

In contrast to U.S. customs, in Japan, the receiver does not open the gift in front of the giver. This is so that the receiver can thank the giver honestly and without bias based on the quality of the gift. Often, the giver will tell the receiver what the gift is. Then the receiver can decide later whether they want to keep the gift or give it to someone else as an omiyage. This type of exchange is accepted in Japanese culture and not considered rude. The saying is that if you wait long enough, you will eventually receive your gift back! Regional gifts are appreciated, as are name brands, gifts from high-end stores, and gifts of food and sweets. Often the gift will be presented in the bag from the store if it is a quality store. Gifts wrapping is also important, and many gifts are often wrapped in fabric. It’s important to remember what you receive and thank the person for it the next time you see them.

What not to give!
When giving gifts it’s important to take into consideration culture and customs. For instance, in Japan, never give anything that numbers four. One of the words for four in Japanese is shi, which also means death. Odd numbers are lucky, so give in sets of three, five or seven. In India, white flowers are used at funerals and do not make appropriate gifts. Stick with chocolates!

The best gifts
When gift-giving comes from a pure place, gifts need not always be of a material nature, but can be exchanged as words of love and gratitude, time and energy, caring and joy. We hope you enjoy this season of giving and gratitude!

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