Tips, tricks, and a brief history of giving – one of the earliest human endeavors

Ever wonder where the tradition of gift-giving originated? Many might suspect that it dates back to the first Christmas when the three wise men brought gifts of Frankincense, Gold, and Myrrh as presents for baby Jesus in the manger. 

In reality, the practice of gifting dates back even further to the earliest days of mankind – before civilization! Apparently, our earliest ancestors hunted, gathered, and gave each other gifts.

Scientific evidence shows that cavemen frequently gave gifts to others in their prehistoric society, known as clans. Granted, they were not like gifts we give today – they would offer uniquely shaped stones, animal teeth, bones, and other useful and coveted items of the time. According to, gifts were often used to demonstrate a male’s generosity and ability to provide, which meant he had a greater chance of finding a mate and producing a family.

Throughout history, gift-giving has been a prevalent part of almost every culture on the planet. For thousands of years, Native American tribes held gift-giving feasts called a “potlatch” to observe special occasions such as births, deaths, and weddings. The hosting family would gain prestige commiserate with the generosity they lavished on their guests.

In Homer’s “Odyssey”, the tradition of Greek hospitality towards travelers demonstrated the importance of material and non-material gifts alike. It was considered one’s duty to be kind and generous towards strangers in need of food and shelter as a moral obligation and a means to maintain social order.

The theory behind gift-giving has also had some interesting twists and turns. Traditionally, the reasons for gifting have been to honor special events, to demonstrate romantic love, and to build relationships among nations. But, hundreds of years ago in Europe, superstition drove people to believe evil spirits would haunt or harm somebody celebrating a birthday. Therefore, it became customary to gather together, bring presents to ward off the evil, and protect the guest of honor!

In fact, the exchanging of Christmas presents as we know it today did not become a common practice among the general public until the 1820s when advertisers in U.S. papers started to heavily market the holiday season.

Historical Fun Facts About Gifts

In a blog article from, writer Allie Hartford shares some notable gifts from the past:

  • Among the largest gifts in history – The Statue of Liberty was given to the United States by France to honor 100 years of independence

  • The most expensive gift ever – The Taj Mahal, a white marble mausoleum built by the Mughal emperor, Sha Jahan, for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal

  • The most notorious gift in history – The Trojan Horse, given to the city of Troy by the Greeks – enough said!

Modern Day Gift Giving

Today we have a multitude of occasions where it is customary to bring gifts: Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, holidays, baby showers, bar mitzvahs, engagements, weddings, house warmings, Valentine’s Day, and so forth. 

It can feel overwhelming and cause some people to stress as they scour the mall for the perfect present.  But, it doesn’t have to be that way according to Dr. Christiane Northrup, who says gift-giving should be meaningful, not stressful.

What Changed?

For over 10 years, Dr. Northrup and her family changed their holiday gift-giving practice to focus on enjoying each other’s presence, rather than the exchange of presents. And while she believes this may be too extreme for some families to endure, she believes that the giving of a gift and receiving of a gift should provide an equal amount of pleasure.

That raises a good point. In fact, we often think of gifts in terms of items and experiences we have received over the years – we all have a favorite childhood birthday present we’ll never forget, or that crazy holiday sweater we wouldn’t be caught dead wearing!

However, psychologically speaking, the act of giving a meaningful gift to someone we love can be way more beneficial to our well being than that which we receive. The perfect present is more than just a material object, it carries with it a wish for someone’s happiness, which in turn fills our heart with love and the release of healthy endorphins. 

Alternatively, a misguided gift that misses the mark completely can run the risk of insulting the recipient, creating a negative effect, thus causing stress for our psyche. And that is ultimately why we feel a sense of pressure and foreboding as a special occasion draws near and we are still scrambling to figure out just what to get for someone.

If you find yourself in that situation, do not fear, O’Live A Little stores in South Windsor and Canton have an array of thoughtful gifts that will match the personality and “tastes” of everyone on your list. 

Tips for Picking Out the Perfect Gift

When shopping for someone you care about, remember, it’s all about them. Don’t make it about you – or what you think would be cool, fun, or useful. Although it’s easiest to shop for a BFF who likes everything you do, chances are the person is unique and some of their own interests.


To become a master gift-giver, you must be a good listener. People will readily talk about things they like or dislike. These can actually be good clues as to what type of gifts they would treasure. Hobbies and special interests can reflect what a person values most, use that information to your advantage.

Another trick is to observe a friend or family member’s current circumstances. They won’t always know or ask for what they need, but by paying attention to what would make their life easier or replace something that is worn out that they are still using could be just the ticket to the right gift.


Understanding who a person will really help when buying a gift. If the recipient is bookish and conservative, don’t get her the handbag that screams “LOOK AT ME!!”. Likewise, don’t buy the box set of the latest Ken Burns documentary for your friend the trendsetter. Match the gift to the persona.


As stated at the outset, the act of gifting has a long history. Traditional gifts have stood the test of time because they are culturally significant. It is said that birthstones bring good luck, good health, and prosperity – universal sentiments that many will appreciate. In this same vein, considering the recipient’s astrological sign will be meaningful to certain individuals. Tapping into myths and symbolism associated with good luck, such as Moonstone, agate, and owls can be a tasteful way to send the right wish.


In our material world, not everyone wants or needs more objects and items to clutter up their lives. Giving experiences, like a special vacation weekend or tickets to a playoff game may be more memorable than a new briefcase, tie, or iPhone (although a new iPhone is a pretty awesome gift!). Other ideas like giving of your time, or making a donation to a charitable cause on someone’s behalf are admired by some – especially if you’re trying to shop for someone who has everything.

At O’Live A Little, we like to encourage shoppers to gift consumables. A tasty treat can be something that is shared and enjoyed at the moment – and then remembered as a unique flavor or experience thereafter. Our friendly, knowledgeable staff will have many suggestions for even the most discerning palates. 

Looking for More Advice?

If you really struggle with gift-giving or feel like your gifts fall short of your expectations, here is a useful article by Suzanne Degges-White from the website Psychology Today, which offers some practical examples of gifts gone awry and the psychological reasons that can lead to disappointment. 

Stay positive and don’t give up! There are plenty of resources on the web for finding the perfect gift.  

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