Gift Giving

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GIFT GIVING . The exchange of gifts is one of the most telling characteristics of human culture and, according to some authorities, may form the original basis of economics. From a religious perspective, gift giving has two primary aspects with many variations. First, gift giving is incorporated in a variety of ways within the religious customs and sanctions that regulate social behavior. Second, in the sense of offering, gift giving is an essential aspect of sacrifices ritually presented to a deity or deities. In both aspects the process of gift giving may involve distribution of the gift within the selected social group to which it is appropriate; it may also entail the destruction of all or part of the thing given, to signify its disappearance into the metaphysical realm.

The Potlatch as a Model for Gift Giving

With regard to the social aspect of gift giving, Marcel Mauss's Essai sur le don (1925), translated as The Gift (1954), shows gift giving to be the very means by which value can be taught and understood in a society, provoking humans to productivity but at the same time inspiring a sense of an intangible presence in the things distributed. Mauss seems to regard the potlatchan elaborate celebration entailing the lavish display and distribution of the host's possessionsas the most significant form of gift giving, possessing both religious significance and profound consequences for the development of economic systems. The gifts associated with the potlatch, as practiced by the Kwakiutl Indians, include both tangible, useful materials (such as blankets, boats, and food), and an entirely symbolic articlethe most valuable prestation of all (Mauss's term, signifying the repayment of an obligation)namely, a hatchet-shaped copper plaque.

The potlatch originated along the rich coast of northwestern North America. Many tribes in these regions adopted the potlatch, but the system appears in its most elaborate and well-recorded form among the Kwakiutl. It has been greatly modified as native peoples have become increasingly assimilated into the dominant white culture. Historically, the Kwakiutl were among the most thoroughly stratified tribes imaginable; they were fundamentally divided into two large groups, the naqsala, or nobility, and the xamala, or commoners. Every person, noble or common, belonged to further-interrelated subgroups within the overall structure of tribes and to numina, or subdivisions, within the particular tribe. The nobles, and even the commoners, were identified within all the interlocking groups by discrete honorific titles and by a system of seating according to rank. In the formalized feasting that was the ritual setting for the act of prestation, this seating system had much to do with the way in which goods were distributed.

In one respect, the potlatch system might be thought of as a means of increasing one's capital through interest on loans. One's status in the community was linked to the munificence with which one disposed of one's capital in the feasts. The capital consisted of what was regarded as valuable during a particular period: blankets, fish oil, food, shells, and slaves were such goods in premodern times. To cite an example, the list of gifts given in a potlatch in 1921 included the following items: Hudson Bay blankets, canoes, pool tables, bracelets, gaslights, violins, gasoline-powered boats, guitars, dresses, shawls, sweaters, shirts, oaken trunks, sewing machines, basins, glasses, washtubs, teapots, cups, bedsteads, bureaus, and sacks of flour and sugar (Rohner, 1970, p. 97). All of the items on this list were given to differentially ranked individuals. The pool tables, regarded as equivalent to the copper plaque (or "copper"), went to men of very high status. Glasses, washtubs, teapots, and cups went to women of various ranks. Thus, the distributor invested capital that gave him high status in the community and that was loaned, in a sense, in the expectation that all the items would be returned with interest at a future potlatch. Indeed, the interest was very precisely calculated; in the case of blankets, the return due at the end of one year was double the number of blankets given. The return of these loans (which were not solicited but had to be accepted, according to the system) was the occasion for the giving of new loans, much as it was the occasion for the potlatch feast. The purpose of the potlatch among the Kwakiutl was not to accumulate goods but to show one's ranked status in the community by the level of munificence one displayed. Some writers have compared the gift giving at the potlatch to a kind of warfare or war game in which the bestowal of extravagant gifts could inflict serious "wounds" on other participants.

Although it has not been commented on by leading writers, an analysis of the potlatch system reveals more than a few traits in common with the Hindu caste system, which likewise assigns rank during feasting in communal settings, and which includes a large element of redistribution of economic resources. Indeed, those who ranked highest on the curve of potlatch status owned not only goods in quantity but sacred names that could be distributed only during the communal feast; moreover, the highest-ranking regarded themselves as an exclusive group and had only limited contact with those lower in the system. Similar elements can be found in the caste system, wherein the caste name, sometimes irrelevant to the actual work performed, is understood to define an inescapable social statusindeed, the bestowal of magical and sacred names is an almost universal phenomenon throughout the Hindu religious system. Of course, this does not mean that the potlatch gift-giving system is the same as the caste system. But if Mauss's original insight is true, then the socially sanctioned distribution of gifts and other tokens of relationship, fraught with historical and structural significance as these things are, may be an irreducible element in human culture. The potlatch and caste systems are perhaps instances of a general principle. The universal relevance of these systems is clear, even in the apparent particularity of this description:

The potlatch is more than a legal phenomenon; it is one of those phenomena we propose to call "total." It is religious, mythological and shamanistic because the chiefs taking part are incarnations of gods and ancestors, whose names they bear, whose dances they dance and whose spirits possess them. It is economic; and one has to assess the value, importance, causes and effects of transactions which are enormous even when reckoned by European standards. The potlatch is also a phenomenon of social morphology; the reunion of tribes, clans, families and nations produces great excitement. People fraternize but at the same time remain strangers; community of interest and opposition are revealed constantly in a great whirl of business. Finally, from the jural point of view, we have already noted the contractual forms and what we might call the human element of the contract, and the legal status of the contracting partiesas clans or families or with reference to rank or marital condition; and to this we now add that the material objects of the contracts have a virtue of their own which causes them to be given and compels the making of counter-gifts. (Mauss, 1967, pp. 3637)

Caste relations in traditionalist Hindu society are problematic even today because of the threat of "pollution through contact." Mauss's idea is that such "pollution" is a sort of inversion of gift giving, for no matter what the degree of contact, there is some sort of giving involved, even if limited to the exchange of services. Mauss asserted that things given were still perceived to have links with the persons giving them. This characteristic of gifts would seem to be inescapable even in modern perceptions of their ultimate value, whether or not they are overtly sanctified by religion (as, for example, the blessed rings exchanged in a Christian wedding ceremony). After all, the caste system would have no power if it were not understood that everyone in the society exists of necessity in an intrinsic relation with everyone else. What is the basis of that relationship if not the exchange of goods and services, even if this must lead, at times, to measures to avoid the perceived consequences of pollution through contact?

Mauss Revisionists

Although the interesting interpretation of the potlatch by Mauss will certainly remain a point of reference for understanding gift giving, other authors have investigated the phenomenon from different theoretical perspectives and on the basis of other field research. Annette B. Weiner, in Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving (1992), is concerned that in the Trobriand Islands, New Zealand, Samoa, and Hawai'i (Oceania) the special role of women in the creation of value through their reproductive and cultural productivity has been slighted in the history of the interpretation of gift giving, not just in the work of Mauss, but also in later works by Bronislaw Malinowski, Émile Durkheim, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and others. She bases her analysis upon a factor that is present in the exchange of gifts in these societies and that can also be found in the Kwakiutl potlatch system. As the title of her work suggests, the issue is that gift giving, or other connected bestowals, such as the granting of titles and sacred names, involves a heroic effort to maintain in one's own possession the most prestigious potential gifts while giving away quantities of other gifts that enhance or maintain the giver's prestige. Such a mandate is based upon a cosmological imperative from the imaginary other world. Status, as among the Kwakiutl, is of paramount importance in the social systems of Oceania and is not linked solely or even primarily to the roles of men in the hierarchy.

Weiner makes her most telling distinctions in describing the differences between alienable and inalienable possessions. It is the former that the society manufactures in sufficient quantities, often primarily through the production by women of fine woven mats, leaf skirts, and other commodities, to meet the requirements of gift giving in the particular social context. On the other hand, women also produce especially desirable mats and other types of "cloth" that are imbued with mana (a kind of sacrality). These items are linked to the reproductive power of female sexuality and cultural productivity, and they are inalienable. Other objects, such as shell arm bracelets (mwali ) and necklaces (soulava ), are also in this category. The ceremonial exchange of such goods is called kula. Somewhat like the system of the Kwakiutl, and found almost universally in the human world, gift giving is mandatory under certain ritual conditions, including, for example, when selecting a marriage partner (engagement), at weddings, at births, on recognized festivals, at the accession to high status of individuals in the society, at burials, and the like. For Weiner, what other anthropologists have failed to recognize is the essential role that women play in these systems, not only as cultural producers, but also as the recipients of the status connected with particular, inalienable possessions. Throughout Oceania there are numerous examples of women of high statuseven chiefs, or, in Hawai'i, queenswho possess by right the inalienable items that it is their duty to maintain for the prestige of family and lineage. The greatest anxiety, underlying the alienable-inalienable dialectic, is that, however entrenched the inalienable potential gift may seem to be in one's own possession, occasions may arise whenbecause of defeat in warfare or as compensation for crimes such as murder, or due to other nearly catastrophic eventsthe gift must be surrendered to someone else. The requirements of gift giving under the social mandate of the group may demand such surrender when, through failure to produce substitutes in sufficient quantity, the inalienable possession itself must be surrendered to meet the social requirement.

According to Weiner, one of the ways that these societies maintain the integrity of particular lineages and their most valued possessions (titles and commodities) is through their extreme emphasis upon the brother-sister relationship. It is this factor that contributes substantially to the high status of women in these societies. The sister, even after her marriage, is in constant communication and relationship with her brother, even though he is married to another woman. Their relationship is often sanctified by a myth of a primordial incestuous sibling marriage that was the foundation of their lineage. The intensity of the link, which seems in part to be created to avoid the possible loss of familial, inalienable possessions, is carried to such lengths in the Trobriand Islands that the mother's brother, rather than the natural father, has "jural authority" over his sister's children (Weiner, 1992, p. 71). In Hawai'i the highest ranking families were actually the result of sibling marriages (p. 82), and, thus, brother-sister incest was not tabooalthough it was taboo, in spite of the emphasis upon the brother-sister relationship, in most other areas of Oceania.

Maurice Godelier, in The Enigma of the Gift (1999), undertakes an exhaustive review, particularly of Mauss, with whom he agrees in many respects, and of Lévi-Strauss, with whom he agrees less, but also of Malinowski, Durkheim, and Weiner. Even though originally trained as a philosopher, Godelier claims the prerogative to comment on their work because he became an anthropologist and did fieldwork among the Baruya, a tribe that lives in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea. He wishes to change Weiner's formula of "keeping-while-giving" to "keeping-for-giving," which he believes is a clearer way of stating the situation. Godelier goes on to say, subjecting Lévi-Strauss to criticism in the process, that "although Annette Weiner does not make the distinction between the imaginary and the symbolic, I would point out in passing that it is highly likely that the valuables, treasures and talismans which are not given but are kept are those which concentrate the greatest imaginary power and, as a consequence, the greatest symbolic value" (p. 33). What he means in particular is that Lévi-Strauss is wrong when he insists that mana and similar terms for the sacred are merely empty signifiers to make up for a lack of adequate language to refer to the intangible. Rather, Godelier thinks the whole of gift giving is wrapped up in the imaginary background of the social construct, which in itself can be thought of as "the total gift." In language that suggests the exquisite, even ineffable, way that gift giving plays this roleessentially of a religious nature, although Godelier does not believe that the human imaginary has any real links to a transcendent realityhe says something like the following in several places:

From the moment most social relations in a society exist as and through the creation of personal bonds, as relations between persons, and from the moment these bonds are established by means of exchanging gifts which themselves entail the transfer and shifting of "realities," which can be of any kind (women, children, precious objects, services) as long as they lend themselves to being shared, all of the objective social relations which form the basis of a society (the kinship system, political system, and so forth), together with the intersubjective personal relations which embody them, can be expressed and "materialized" by the exchange of gifts and countergifts and by the movements, the trajectories followed by the "objects" of these gift-exchanges. (Godelier, 1999, p. 104)

Godelier makes a greater distinction than either Mauss or Weiner between agonistic and non-agonistic gift exchanges (1999, p. 48 et passim). The former, of which the potlatch is the exemplary type, implies the sometimes nearly warlike level of competition and is more absorbed in the transfer of the inalienable property, which may be an almost ineluctable goal that can lead to violence. The non-agonistic gift exchange, on the other hand, is much less fraught with tension.

The theoretical positions outlined above are drawn from field research among social groups whose imaginary construction of the gift-giving totality has been largely emptied of meaning in the economy of industrial nations and of its symbolic value in the modern Western way of life. Indeed, these studies give us great insight into the origins of the processes of exchange; but now, despite the preponderance of state-regulated or encouraged transfers to the most needy of the means to live, there may be a hankering after some unrealizable past state of human history. Godelier says very trenchantly, "When idealized, the 'uncalculating' gift operates in the imaginary as the last refuge of a solidarity, of an open-handedness which is supposed to have characterized other eras in the evolution of humankind. Gift-giving becomes the bearer of a utopia (a utopia which can be projected into the past as well as into the future)" (1999, p. 208). The major religions of the world, with their immense literary and cultural heritages, must be understood to have evolved their own rich complexities in the realm of gift giving, and these can only be indicated briefly and selectively in what follows.

Gifts for the Gods

In light of the foregoing conceptual frameworks and their implied universal applicability to social systems, it may be said that the characteristics of ritual gift giving provide a central element in religious life. What transpires at the social level, in the continuing drama of human relations, is reflected in the structure of the relationship between the human and the divine, as conceived in a particular group or religion. Much of the ritual in world religions symbolically connects hierarchy with the distribution of gifts, an act that is so powerful in the social relationship itself. Through Weiner's insight we might also theorize that most ritual behavior, religious charity, and religiously sanctioned social norms and behaviors participate in the alienable-inalienable tension of "keeping while giving" to the extent that these enhance status in the community and, also, imply an inalienable gift, such as a particularized salvation.


In the way that gifts were offered to the gods, Hinduism divides into two periods, characterized by the offerings presented in the so-called Vedic sacrifice and by the apparently endless variety of offerings of the later Hindu temple cult with its corollaries in household and sectarian worship. The gifts given to the gods in the Vedic sacrifice had relation to the organically perceived universe, which was, as the Upaniad says, "all food" (Taittirīya Upaniad 2.2), It appeared to the Vedic sacrificer that if the universe were to have the strength to keep running, certain foods had to be immolated on the Vedic fire altar. The ritual, as it has come down to us today, appears in several different forms. Great public rituals are now less common than before, although they are still performed on occasion. The numerous Brahmanic rituals, including the Sadhyā Vandanā (the daily service) and those connected with domestic life, and others oriented toward the welfare of departed spirits, involved simple offerings of ghee (clarified butter), water, grains, coconuts, and the like. In the Śrāddha ceremony for the dead, pia (rice balls) were believed to assuage the spirits. The more elaborate ceremonies in ancient times included animal sacrifices and the pressing of the soma, a type of intoxicant that was notably given to the god Indra to enable him to perform vigorously in his battle with Vtra, a cosmic monster. Horses and humans were slain in the sacrifices. The deities of the Vedic period had negative as well as positive traits; as in the context of other ritual systems, the offerings to the higher powers could bring benefits in reciprocation or ward off dangerous interventions. These are sometimes called the do ut des (I give that you may give) and do ut abeas (I give that you may go away) aspects of a ritual transaction.

In the period following 600 bce, in the aftermath of the growing anthropomorphization of the deity (perhaps stimulated by the art and ritual of Buddhism and Jainism), the characteristic offerings in worship were likened to the food and gifts given to exalted human beings. Thus, it has often been mentioned that the style of Hindu temple worship is patterned after the court life of ancient India. The deity is considered to be the most respectable and powerful associate of humanity, a visitor from another realm who condescends to dwell for a time within images in temples, and who can be approached with gifts, services, art, music, and literature. In fact, gifts from the whole realm of human creativity can be offered to him. Two examples will be illustrative. It has been observed that among the later Kaite sects of North India, that of the Vallabha Sampradāy (founded by Vallabhācārya, 14791531), whose fervent love of the child Ka results in a daylong ceremonial offering of food, is the most lavish in "ritualistic materialism," if one may call it that. On special holidays, such as Ka's birthday, a mountain of food is prepared by the devotees and brought to the shrine to be offered to the image. Whenever offered, the food becomes prasāda, a kind of sacrament imbued with the power of the deity (because touched by him in a spiritual sense) and given back to the worshipers for their own consumption. Money offerings are given for the prasāda, which is, in effect, sold. The receipts are used to maintain the temple property, the priestly class, and the like. On the other hand, some gift-giving ceremonies are not at all lavish; a simple ceremony performed in the household for family members and guests or for a ladies' association that meets regularly by turn in members' homes for worship may entail the preparation of a simple meal or sweets, first offered to the deity and then given to the participants in the ceremony.

On holidays, it is common throughout India to provide new clothing for family members, servants, and other dependents during the feast of Dīvālī (October to November). This is the time when merchant castes close out their books and the goddess Lakmī is implored for an abundance of profit in the coming year. Sweets are exchanged between close friends and business associates. As for other special occasions, perhaps the most oppressive practice of gift giving in Hinduism, likewise representative of an aspect of caste or subcaste behavior, is the system of exchanges between a bride's family and a groom's family, sometimes observed for a number of years both before and after the marriage proper. The prevailing custom places the burden upon the bride's family, and the demands are so excessive that responsible parents in the poorer classes are frequently forced into penury to provide a daughter with a husband. It is not unheard of for a father to commit suicide so that his insurance money can be used to pay off the resulting indebtedness.


There is a type of gift giving that is explicitly meant to relieve the needs of the poor and the destitute. Almsgiving, as this is called, likewise has a role to play in the economy of ascetic life, wherein monks and nuns live under some kind of vow of poverty and must therefore be supported by the actively working laity. Since Buddhism is a religion in which the monastic community (in its maintenance and perfecting of life in the dharma ) is the main focus, it follows that almsgiving will be a general practice among Buddhists.

Apart from this necessary form of gift giving, Buddhism teaches generosity, self-giving, and even gift giving as illustrative of different aspects of the way toward nirvāa. For example, the jātaka stories that began to circulate early in the Buddhist period but were not completed before the fifth century ce demonstrate how the Buddha exemplified certain great lessons of life prior to his final emancipation. In his previous lives he was a bodhisattva and appeared in various embodiments. One of the jātaka tales tells how the Buddha-to-be practiced the virtues leading to emancipation while in the body of a hare. He taught the other animalsthe jackal, the otter, and the monkeyto give alms, keep the precepts, and observe fast days. In observing their rule, the hare instructed his disciples on a certain fast day to give as alms to any stranger who might visit them food that they had obtained in the course of their usual ways. He himself vowedsince hares live on vegetation aloneto offer his own body as food to any meat-eating stranger who might approach him on the fast day. A heavenly being, made aware of the hare's vow, came to earth disguised as a brahman and tested each of the animals in turn as to the sincerity of its vow to offer hospitality after its own kind. The hare in due course threw himself into the fire to provide the brahman' s supper; but the heavenly being prevented the hare's being burned and, to commemorate his magnanimity, drew a likeness of his face on the moon to be admired thenceforth by all on earth.

Gift giving is also mentioned in one of the most famous works of the Mahāyāna tradition, the Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra. Therein, the bodhisattva illustrates in numerous ways his vocation as savior of humanity, suffering in the endlessly repetitive world of sasāra. The bodhisattva offers to deluded humanity the gift of a paradisiacal afterlife as an inducement to abandon the gross physical world. The paradises of the bodhisattva, particularly that of Amida Buddha in the West, are filled with jeweled trees; sparkling, diamantine sands; and enchanting birds and flowers; together with fountains and the like. This paradise is meant to provide a mediating position between the world of sasāra and the absolute state of nirvāa. The bodhisattva vows to take all beings together into that emancipated state. The Buddhist parables of the burning house and the prodigal son are parallel tales illustrating the means by which one might, through gifts, relieve one's obsession with the material world in favor of the higher world. Thus, the children in the burning house are offered gifts to induce them to leave the house and come outside. The kindly, concerned father is the figure of the bodhisattva, likewise offering an escape from the material world into paradise. In the story of the prodigal son, deluded humanity is represented by a wealthy father who finds his lost son after many years; the father tries to change his son's attitude toward himself by giving him gifts and positions of responsibility. This can be understood to refer to the training in spiritual life through which, with the bodhisattva' s help, the aspirant is brought into a state of awareness regarding the true nature of the world and the need for emancipation from it. Works in the Pali canon, such as the Dakkhiāvi-bhaga Sutta and the Sigālovāda Sutta, give precise instructions for the giving of gifts to monks and the giving of gifts between the laity and in connection with the Buddhist holidays.

Chinese religions

Reading the colorful sixteenth-century novel The Golden Lotus, which reflects life in China in the twelfth century, one gathers that in that period in China the well-positioned gift was an absolute essential for the improvement of one's social and economic position, for gaining preference at the court of the emperor, or for placating judges in the courts of law (see Egerton, 1972). Indeed, the novel affords a vivid object lesson on the ways in which bribes not only can move one up the ladder but also, as the companions of other vices, can bring one to one's doom, as is the case with the novel's hero Ximen Qing (or Ch'ing Hsi-men). It has sometimes been said of the Confucian doctrine that it not only attempted to inculcate a reasonable morality on the basis of equity between human beings, as expressed in the so-called silver rule ("Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you"), but it also came to terms with what was perceived to be the natural inequality between persons. Giving and receiving gifts within the hierarchical Chinese society was an inevitable aspect of rank differentiation. Those highest in rank received the most expensive and most numerous gifts. Analogously, the ceremonial life of the public cult involved the emperor's presenting gifts at the altar of heaven within the so-called Forbidden City in Beijing, both at the winter solstice and at other times. Precious stones and costly cloth were among the offerings. Lower-ranking officials throughout the empire offered their respective gifts to the godsto the city god, for example. This activity was consonant with the custom of making offerings at the shrines of family ancestors. Gifts of incense and fruits were regularly presented before the ancestral tablets.

The rites offered to the spirits of Confucius and other sages included sacrifices of pigs and oxen; the great deities of the Daoist pantheon were given wine, cakes, and meat offerings. Indeed, it is not too farfetched to see the development of Chinese cuisine in part as an outgrowth of ritual life. Feasts were regularly a part of the offerings made by individuals in the Daoist and Buddhist temples. In the latter case, vegetarianism required the development of a special cuisine so that the proper foods could be offered to monks and others under similar vows.

Rituals for the departed often included the burning of effigies of material objects, such as imitation money or a tomb made of paper. In contemporary rituals even such modern accoutrements of life as refrigerators and cars may be constructed of paper and burned in the temple furnace with appropriate reverence under the axiom that the thing itself is less important than the thought behind it.

As already noted in the discussion of the potlatch and the Hindu caste system, sociological theory lends credence to the applicability of the potlatch as an analogue to many systems of social organization. Marcel Granet, in Danse et légendes de la Chine ancienne (1926), proposed a relationship between the potlatch and the prefeudal (early or pre-Shang dynasty) system of China, which was influential in the formation of Confucius's ideas of the ideal social order. This position has been examined in the work of Eugene Cooper (1982), who argues convincingly for its validity.


Diaspora Judaism's theory of almsgiving and charity was built on a thoroughgoing moral system. The record of sacrifices in the Hebrew scripturesofferings given to God according to the seasons and particular festivals and the day-to-day demands of ritualhas been preserved by some Jews in synagogue worship through recitations from Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers in the Orthodox preliminary morning service contained in Ha-siddur ha-shalem (see Birnbaum, 1949). With the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce it was no longer possible to maintain the offerings in the prescribed setting; the Jewish community's concern with the purity of food, however, dictated that there be a class of specialists in the ritual slaughter of animals (for food purposes if not for offering to God). With the establishment of the State of Israel, various groups, both Jewish and Christian (although there is considerable disagreement on the issue in Judaism), are making preparations for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and for the reestablishment of ritual sacrifices. Of course, other offerings besides animals were made as well; these included grain, oil, incense, and wine, and some vestige of them remains both in Sabbath observances in the Jewish home and in the Passover meal.

Of the popular holidays, two in particular are connected with gift giving within the family or among friends. The better known, perhaps, is the custom at anukkah of giving gifts (money and other things) to children on each of the eight nights of the festival. Much is made in contemporary Jewish discussion of the need to maintain some kind of distinction between this Jewish observance and the Christmas festival of Christians, particularly since both occur at approximately the same time of year. The playing of games of chance, which of course relate to the potential of gift giving for the redistribution of valuables within the social community, is also a part of the anukkah observance.

Purim, which commemorates the rescue of the Jews from the evil minister Hamman in the court of the king of Persia, is an occasion for exchanging food. The legend itself is told in the Book of Esther, which is read in the synagogue on the holiday in a mood of revelry compared sometimes to that of Carnival in Latin Christian countries. Shala Manos is the custom of sending gifts of food from house to house on Purim; the type of food given is that which can be eaten and drunk on the same day.


As with the history of Buddhism, the history of Christianity reveals the development of an elaborate system of gift giving for the maintenance of the institutions of the church, the clergy, and the monastic communities. During the earliest centuries of the church, persecutions were a constant threat, and the Christian community had to develop its own system of finances, since its survival was outside the concern of the state. From the time of Constantine (early fourth century) onward, the church received state recognition and was able to capitalize on its status to attract enormous endowments; with the advent of Muslim rulers in many Eastern Christian lands, however, the church was once again reduced to tense relations with the state. It survived in part through the generosity of the laity, and in part through official support, for even in Islamic lands the church was to a certain extent and at certain times patronized by the rulers. Gifts of lands and other wealth were given to the Church of the East (sometimes called Nestorian), which before the thirteenth century had spread into China and India. The Christian church of Kerala in South India received, until modern times, regular patronage from the Hindu rulers of the region. The right of the Christian community (and other religious communities) to receive gifts unencumbered by excessive government interference is an issue in the modern world. Specific exemptions from taxes and benefits for giving gifts are written into the laws to encourage the support of religious institutions.

The ritual life of Christianity is permeated with the idea of the gift and gift giving. The elements of the Eucharistthe bread and the wine, which are widely called the Holy Giftsare offered to God as a "sacrifice," and according to some theologies they become the body and blood of Christ in an unbloody reproduction of the crucifixion. Other theologies describe these gifts as being received by God and sanctified to become the body and blood of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. The custom whereby the laity prepare and offer the bread and the wine of the Eucharist has been revived in some Christian bodies. In addition to the elements of the Eucharist and the paraphernalia that accompany it, such as chalices, monstrances, tabernacles of precious metal, and the like, the Christian churches have received uncountable offerings in the form not only of money but also of vestments, paintings, architecture, and sculpturegifts representing the full range of human creativity. These gifts still constitute a principal part of the heritage of Western civilization. Although sometimes limited by theological constraints, Protestant churches have likewise encouraged gift giving through the arts. With the modern secularization of public life, however, the impetus to artistic creativity in connection with the religious gift-giving impulse seems to have been diverted.

Caught somewhere between the sacred and the profane is the gift-giving extravaganza carried out, now virtually around the world, in the name of the infant Christ, who was born in Bethlehem and whose birth is widely celebrated on December 25. The precedent for exchanging gifts on the Christian festival is based on the visit of the wise men from the East to the Christ child, even though their time of arrival at Bethlehem is commemorated on January 6. The date of Christmas was chosen, it is said, in order to attract the interest of the non-Christian masses of Europe who celebrated the winter solstice.


At least from what one gathers in reading the adīth (traditions of Muammad, the Prophet of Islam), the Islamic idea of gift giving is but an extension of the underlying concept of alms, expressed in the two Arabic words zakāt and adaqah. Perhaps because there are no sacrifices or sacraments in the usual religious sense in Islamin other words, no way of transmuting a material object through a religious ceremony from the merely physical plane to a "new mode of being"all events in Islamic religious practice tend to take on a moral overtone; righteousness is the primary goal of religious life. In general, it appears that goodness in Islam is thought of as consequent upon obedience to the command of God to act in certain ways. Generosity may be expressed in a great number of actions that reflect the moral earnestness of a discipline enjoined by a higher power. The myriad customs and observances of Islamic law and tradition are further extensions of the original act of submission, which is a call to acknowledge faith in the one God. The prophet Muammad represents the ultimate degree of perfection in answering the call. Meditation on the minutiae of his life remains the source of the moral earnestness that is the characteristic of Islamic ethics.

In the realm of gift giving, the so-called poor tax, or zakāt, can be understood as a practical example for all types of giving. Both in the Qurʾān and in the traditions of Muammad, the believer is constantly reminded that his days on earth are but a brief interlude, beyond which lies the state of bliss in paradise, provided the believer has merited a reward in the afterlife. In the prostration of prayer, believers are reminded that they are gazing into the pit of the grave where the two angels of paradise or hell will come to direct the soul to its intermediate state prior to the Last Judgment. The poor tax, especially as it impinges on human possessions, reflects this ascetic attitude toward the term of human existence; it is meant to make the Muslim believer deliver from his possessions a fixed amount annuallyat the feasts of the end of Ramaān (the lunar month of fasting) and during the ājj (the pilgrimage to Mecca)for the relief of certain classes in Muslim society.

In the larger sense of sharing what one possesses, the term adaqah is usedfor example, in the Mishkāt al-maābī (see Robson, 19631965). In book 12, On Business Transactions, several chapters are devoted to gifts. The Prophet encouraged the setting aside in "life tenancy" of lands whose produce would maintain certain charitable activities, such as the provision of food for travelers. There are several references to gift giving within the family context in order to assure evenhandedness.

The problem of reciprocity in gift giving is also addressed in chapter 17, part 2, of the Mishkāt, wherein the Prophet is asked whether one must return equally for any gift received. His advice is to return equally if possible; if it is not possible, then an expression of sincere thanks and prayerful intercession will suffice. In general, the Prophet encouraged gift giving between neighbors and among members of the community in order to stimulate mutual good feelings. Perfume was one of the Prophet's favorite gifts in this connection. Even today, when Muslims gather for prayer in the mosque, it is counted a righteous act for them to offer perfume from a small container to their fellow worshipers. To be clean and sweet-smelling is a gift to those with whom one associates, particularly at the time of prayer. It is also considered an act of gift giving to offer a smile rather than a dour look to a fellow human.

See Also

Almsgiving; Hospitality; Potlatch; Sacrifice; Tithes.


Berking, Helmuth. Sociology of Giving. Translated by Patrick Camiller. London, 1999. Traces the origin of gift giving to the historical past but also analyzes the underlying moral issues as they affect modern life.

Birnbaum, Philip, ed. and trans. Ha-Sidur ha-Shalem. New York, 1949.

Burtt, Edwin A., ed. The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha. New York, 1955; rev. ed., 1982.

Cooper, Eugene. "The Potlatch in Ancient China." History of Religions 22, no. 3 (1982): 103128.

Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: An Essay on the Caste System. Translated by Mark Sainsbury. Chicago, 1970; rev. English ed. (with the subtitle The Caste System and its Implications ), 1980.

Egerton, Clement, trans. The Golden Lotus: A Translation, from the Chinese Original, of the Novel Chin P'ing Mei. 4 vols. London, 1972; reprint, London and New York. 1995.

Ferdon, Edwin N. Early Tahiti as the Explorers Saw It, 17671797. Tucson, 1981.

Godbout, Jacques T., with Alain Caille. The World of the Gift. Translated by Donald Winkler. Montreal, 1998. An effort to rehabilitate the concept of gift giving with reference to recent intellectual trends, mainly in France.

Godelier, Maurice. L'Enigme du don. Paris, 1996. Translated by Nora Scott as The Enigma of the Gift. Chicago, 1999.

Granet, Marcel. Danse et légendes de la Chine ancienne. Paris, 1926; 3d ed., corrected and augmented by Rémi Mathieu, Paris, 1994.

Kolenda, Pauline. Caste in Contemporary India: Beyond Organic Solidarity. Menlo Park, Calif., 1978; reprint, 1985.

Krause, Aurel. The Tlingit Indians: Results of a Trip to the Northwest Coast of America and the Bering Straits. Translated by Erna Gunther. Seattle, 1956. Originally published in German in 1885.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by Ian Cunnison. Glencoe, Ill., 1954; reprint, New York, 1967.

Mayer, Adrian C. Caste and Kinship in Central India. Berkeley, 1960.

Otnes, Cele, and Richard F. Beltramini, eds. Gift Giving: A Research Anthology. Bowling Green, Ohio, 1996. This is a combined effort, which, among other things, asserts the thesis "that gift giving has not diminished in importance, but rather has become one of the primary exemplars of symbolic consumer behavior in postindustrial societies" (p. 3).

Robson, James, trans. Mishkāt al-maābī. 4 vols. Lahore, Pakistan, 19631965.

Rohner, Ronald P., and Evelyn C. Rohner. The Kwakiutl: Indians of British Columbia. New York, 1970; reprint, Prospect Heights, Ill., 1986.

Rosman, Abraham, and Paula G. Rubel. Feasting with Mine Enemy: Rank and Exchange among Northwest Coast Societies. New York, 1971.

Siegel, Richard, Michael Strassfeld, and Sharon Strassfeld, eds. The Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit. Philadelphia, 1973.

Stryk, Lucien, ed. World of the Buddha: A Reader. Garden City, N.Y., 1968.

Weiner, Annette B. Inalienable Possessions: The Paradox of Keeping-While-Giving. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1992.

Wouk, Herman. This Is My God. Garden City, N.Y., 1959.

Wu Cheng-en. Monkey Subdues the White-Bone Demon. Translated and adapted by Wang Hsing-Pei. Beijing, 1973.

Yan, Yunxiang. The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village. Stanford, Calif., 1996. This is "an ethnographic account of the system of gift exchange and the patterns of interpersonal relations in a north China village" (p. 1).

Charles S. J. White (1987 and 2005)