Giving Birthday Gifts: A History

Giving Birthday Gifts: A History

Birthday celebrations vary by culture and gender, as does the history of birthday gifts. Beginning perhaps as early as Roman times, traditions were taken from other, often pagan, celebrations and applied to celebrating an individual’s birthday. But, like other holidays, religion influenced these traditions, and Christianity introduced the calendar of saints, which associated each day with a saint or martyr. This calendar led to the custom of individuals taking for his or her baptismal or confirmation name the name of the saint honored on his or her day of birth. Thus, even today, some Catholics celebrate the saint on his or her “name day” rather than celebrating a “birth day” and some Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate birthdays because of the pagan origin of the birthday tradition.


Another theory on the history of birthday gifts states that years ago in Europe, people believed that evil spirits would seek out and haunt someone on his or her birthday, most importantly the king. Therefore, on one’s birthday, people would gather to protect that person and would bring with them good wishes. Not ironically, these gatherings became our modern day birthday parties, and over time, people brought more than just good wishes to ward off evil spirits; they brought presents too.


History of Birthday Gifts: Customs and Gift Ideas


As alluded to previously, the history of birthday gifts began with presents functioning as good wishes or symbolic tools to ward off evil spirits. Today, as with any gift-giving endeavor, birthday gifts should be personal, specific, and intentional. As a giver, you should consider the interests and wants of your target receiver. You should consider the age and gender of the receiver and make certain your gift is appropriate. For example, toddlers love to put small objects in their mouths, making toys with small parts dangerous. You may want to consider the receiver’s birthstone or zodiac stone when thinking about a gift. Finally, especially with teenage boys and girls, a gift certificate may be the perfect gift.


While birthday cakes, candles, and songs are tradition in the US, and many other cultures adopt these symbols in some way as well, some countries have very unique customs. For example, many countries in South America incorporate dancing the waltz into birthday celebrations; in Mexico, Cuba, and Panama, piñatas are tradition. Still other groups of people require new clothes or special attire to be worn on one’s birthday. Finally, there are numerous traditions in different part of the world such that the person celebrating his or her birthday receives claps, slaps, spankings, or ear pullings – one for each year of life and one for good luck.

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