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Representational image of a woman giving a birthday present. Source: GrafitiRex / Adobe Stock

Gifts Across the Ages: When Did People Start Giving Birthday Presents?

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For every individual, their birthday is an important and very meaningful date. Whether you’re nine or 90, you can’t help but feel happy and elated on your special day, especially when your friends and family shower you with birthday presents. In today’s culture, the tradition of birthdays and giving presents is very important as it allows those closest to you to express their affection and respect for you by giving you special gifts. But when exactly did this tradition start? Did our ancestors observe the same “rituals”? Let’s go through the pages of history and find out.

Representational image of the coronation of a pharaoh. Coronation anniversaries in ancient Egypt were akin to modern-day birthdays. (Fanny Schertzer / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Representational image of the coronation of a pharaoh. Coronation anniversaries in ancient Egypt were akin to modern-day birthdays. (Fanny Schertzer / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The History of Giving Birthday Presents

The origin of birthday presents can be traced back to the dawn of human civilization, where the celebration of one's birth held varying degrees of importance across different cultures. Within the annals of ancient history, we find glimpses of birthday celebrations accompanied by the exchange of gifts, though the customs were far from standardized.

In ancient Egypt, for example, the Pharaohs celebrated their coronation anniversaries, which were akin to what we now consider as birthdays. Gifts—often precious objects or tokens of favor—were presented to the reigning monarch. Similarly, in Mesopotamia, the early Sumerians are believed to have marked the “birthdays” of their kings with offerings and tributes.

The Greeks, while not initially known for elaborate birthday festivities, did honor the goddess Artemis with moon-shaped cakes on her birth-moon. As for the Romans, birthdays took on a more personal significance, with the elites celebrating the birthdays of family members with feasts and, potentially, gifts.

It is said that the first proper birthday celebrations as we know them, originated in ancient Rome, as they were the first to actually celebrate “the birth of the common man.” The presents given were often small figurines and tokens of affection, many of them meant to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck.

In ancient China, the celebration of birthdays was deeply rooted in religious and cultural practices. The concept of Hong Bao, or red envelopes containing money or other valuable items, was often associated with birthdays and special occasions. However, the widespread practice of gift-giving on birthdays as we know it today did not become prevalent until much later in history.

Hong Bao is a very old tradition in China, possibly dating to the Han Dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD). On birthdays, weddings and other special occasions, guests would give red envelopes containing money. These were intended to ward off evil spirits and old age. The tradition still survives to this day across Asia.

Hong Bao, or red envelopes, are monetary birthday presents with origins in ancient Chinese tradition. Detail from Buddhist Ten Judgements of Hell. (Joe Mabel / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Hong Bao, or red envelopes, are monetary birthday presents with origins in ancient Chinese tradition. Detail from Buddhist Ten Judgements of Hell. (Joe Mabel / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Meaning of “Birthday Presents” Throughout the Ages

In Hindu traditions, the celebration of birthdays has been observed for centuries, often marked by special rituals and ceremonies. While gifts were exchanged, the emphasis was more on the spiritual aspects of the occasion. Gifts were symbolic and carried a deeper meaning, often reflecting the values and beliefs of the giver. For the Hindus, special emphasis was always placed on the individual, celebrating their importance and life.

As the ages went on, the traditions remained. The medieval period brought with it a whole new tapestry of diverse customs and traditions, and the celebration of birthdays was often imbued with distinct cultural nuances. During this era, the observance of birthdays was not as widespread or standardized as it is in contemporary times, but there were notable instances of festivities and, occasionally, the exchange of gifts.

In medieval Europe, the aristocracy and royalty were more likely to partake in elaborate birthday celebrations. These events were not only opportunities for feasting and revelry but also occasions for the exchange of gifts among the nobility. These so-called “birthday presents” ranged from ornate trinkets to items of practical use, symbolizing both wealth and goodwill.

The strong influence of Christianity during the medieval period also played a role in shaping birthday celebrations. In many Christian societies, the emphasis was on the celebration of saints' feast days rather than individual birthdays. However, as the cult of saints grew, so did the practice of commemorating the birth of significant religious figures.

For the common folk, however, birthday celebrations were often simpler affairs. While feasting and communal gatherings were not uncommon, the exchange of gifts among the general population was less pronounced. Gifts, when given, were likely to be handmade or practical simple items, reflecting the agrarian nature of medieval society. Poverty and lack of personal belongings of the lower classes in this age meant that birthday presents were modest and simple.

The nature of gifts during medieval birthday celebrations often carried symbolic meanings. Precious stones, for example, might signify wealth and prosperity, while crafted items could represent the artisanal skills of the giver. The act of giving itself was considered a gesture of goodwill and social bonding and could possibly indicate alliances between nobles.

Miniature with Count Thierry II and his wife Hildegard of Flanders presenting the codex to the Egmond Abbey. (Public domain)

Miniature with Count Thierry II and his wife Hildegard of Flanders presenting the codex to the Egmond Abbey. (Public domain)

Gift-Giving and Birthdays in the Renaissance

Stepping out of the dark corridors of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance marked a period of cultural, artistic and intellectual rebirth in Europe, while the 17th century continued this trend of transformation. During this time, societal attitudes towards birthdays and celebrations underwent significant changes, laying the groundwork for the more individualized and festive approach we see today.

While the aristocracy had previously celebrated collective events like name days, the rising emphasis on the individual during the Renaissance encouraged the acknowledgment of personal milestones, such as birthdays. This shift was reflected in art, literature and the cultural practices of the time.

Artistic representations from the Renaissance and 17th century often depicted scenes of celebration, including birthday festivities. Paintings showcased elaborate feasts, masked balls and the exchange of gifts, offering a glimpse into the evolving customs of the time. Literature, too, began to romanticize the idea of birthday celebrations, contributing to the cultural narrative surrounding these events.

Among the elite classes, birthday celebrations became grand affairs. Extravagant gifts were exchanged, ranging from finely crafted jewelry to commissioned artworks. The act of gift-giving became not only a display of wealth and status but also a means of expressing affection and patronage. But for many elites of the time, giving expensive gifts was a sure way for them to display their incredible wealth. And wealth meant power.

Royal courts played a significant role in shaping the culture of birthday celebrations. Monarchs and nobility would host lavish parties and entertainments to mark important occasions, including birthdays. These celebrations often involved the exchange of opulent birthday presents, further cementing the connection between wealth, social standing and the act of gift-giving.

While the elite classes reveled in grand celebrations, the common people also began to adopt more personalized approaches to birthday festivities. Gift-giving, though not as opulent, became a more integral part of these celebrations. Handmade items, tokens of appreciation or practical gifts were exchanged among friends and family.

The Russian Romanovs famously created priceless gifts for their family and friends, such as Fabergé eggs given at Easter which included the Lilies of the Valley Egg, seen here, gifted by Czar Nicholas II to his wife Alexandra in 1898. (Pedro Szekely / CC BY-SA 2.0)v

The Russian Romanovs famously created priceless gifts for their family and friends, such as Fabergé eggs given at Easter which included the Lilies of the Valley Egg, seen here, gifted by Czar Nicholas II to his wife Alexandra in 1898. (Pedro Szekely / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Birthdays and Birthday Presents in the Modern Age

The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed further evolution in the celebration of birthdays, marked by changing social norms, industrialization and the emergence of distinct cultural practices. This period laid the foundation for the more widespread and standardized celebration of birthdays, including the custom of giving and receiving gifts.

The 18th century saw the rise of the middle class, and with it, a big shift in social dynamics. As more people gained financial stability, the celebration of birthdays became more accessible to a broader segment of society. The middle class began to adopt and adapt the customs previously associated mainly with the aristocracy.

What is more, gifts and birthday presents no longer had to be pricey jewels or money. The possibilities were now many: from simple trinkets, toys, tokens of affection, clothing, food or drinks, or anything in between. Thanks to the shifting in norms, you could display your affection without breaking the bank.

Baby’s Birthday by Frederick Daniel Hardy in 1867. (Public domain)

Baby’s Birthday by Frederick Daniel Hardy in 1867. (Public domain)

The Industrial Revolution, which gained momentum in the late 18th century and continued into the 19th century, played a crucial role in shaping the nature of birthday celebrations. With the mass production of goods, a variety of affordable and attractive items became accessible to a larger population. This facilitated the growth of a consumer culture, including the purchasing and exchanging of gifts.

Alas, with the onset of two World Wars, the practice was disrupted for a while, but later continued in earnest. During this period, certain birthday rituals and traditions became more prevalent. Birthday cakes, for example, began to take on symbolic significance, with candles representing the number of years being celebrated. The act of blowing out candles and making a wish became a widely adopted practice.

The 19th century also saw a significant shift in the perception of childhood, and with it, the celebration of children's birthdays became more pronounced. Previously, birthdays were primarily adult-centered events, but gradually, the focus shifted towards creating special moments for children. The concept of a “birthday party” as we understand it today started to take shape, complete with decorations, games, and, of course, gifts.

The 19th century marked a turning point in the culture of gift-giving. While handmade and sentimental gifts were still cherished, there was a growing emphasis on commercially produced items. The exchange of gifts became a more central aspect of birthday celebrations, reflecting the changing nature of social relationships and the influence of a burgeoning consumer market.

Literature and popular culture continued to play a role in shaping perceptions of birthdays. The writings of authors such as Charles Dickens, for example, often depicted scenes of joyous birthday celebrations, contributing to the romanticization of these events.

The Birthday Gift, a painting of the giving of a personal birthday present circa 1886 by Rebecca Solomon. (Public domain)

The Birthday Gift, a painting of the giving of a personal birthday present circa 1886 by Rebecca Solomon. (Public domain)

Birthdays and Birthday Presents Today

The 20th century witnessed profound societal changes, technological advancements and the globalization of culture. The celebration of birthdays evolved further during this period, with the emergence of new traditions, commercial influences and a shift towards more personalized and diverse forms of gift-giving.

Our age saw a significant uptick in the commercialization of birthdays. Advertisements and marketing campaigns increasingly promoted the idea that elaborate celebrations and lavish gifts were essential for expressing love and appreciation. This commercial influence played a role in shaping societal expectations around birthdays.

The exchange of birthday cards became a widespread practice during the 20th century. Greeting card companies capitalized on the sentimentality associated with birthdays, offering a convenient way to convey well-wishes. Additionally, the use of decorative wrapping paper became a standard way to present gifts, adding an element of surprise and anticipation to the act of giving.

With the advent of technology, especially in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, new forms of gift-giving emerged. Online shopping became increasingly popular, offering a convenient way to select and send gifts. Digital gifts, such as e-cards, virtual gift cards and online subscriptions, became common in the age of the internet.

In recent years, however, there has been an increased awareness of environmental impact, leading to a shift in gift-giving practices. Sustainable and eco-friendly gifts, as well as experiences over material possessions, gained popularity as people sought more environmentally conscious ways to celebrate birthdays.

Showing Your Love Through Birthday Presents

Psychologically, giving and receiving birthday presents serve as tangible expressions of love, care and connection. The act of selecting a gift that aligns with the recipient's tastes and preferences reflects a desire to understand and celebrate the individual. On the recipient's end, receiving a thoughtful gift can strengthen emotional bonds and foster a sense of belonging. People understood this importance throughout history, even in the far ancient times.

The act of giving and receiving birthday presents remains a multifaceted and deeply human expression, bridging the tangible and the symbolic, and contributing to the rich mosaic of celebrations that mark our journey through time.

Top image: Representational image of a woman giving a birthday present. Source: GrafitiRex / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Connect, A. 24 June 2018. “The History of Giving Birthday Presents to Kids” in ABA Connect. Available at: https://www.abaconnect.com/holidays/history-giving-birthday-presents-kids/

Lo, S. No date. “History of Birthday Celebrations: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know – And Then Some” in Bags of Love. Available at: https://www.bagsoflove.co.uk/blog/history-of-birthday-everything-you-ever-needed-to-know/

Unknown. 16 August 2023. “Why Do We Give Gifts On Birthdays?” in Bring My Song To Life. Available at: https://www.bringmysongtolife.com/post/why-do-we-give-gifts-on-birthdays

 
Aleksa Vučković's picture

Aleksa

I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most... Read More

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