Gift Giving: A Universal Ritual

I started writing this post yesterday and got bogged down in talking about different kinds of gifts I have given recently and the psychology of giving and receiving. Then I was thinking a lot about receiving gifts from patients and all that that means and what to do as well as when to give a patient some kind of “transitional object”… However, I realized that would be a great idea for another post, and that I was straying from my original intention to celebrate cultural rituals.

Not to get on a tangent, but I have worked with patients, especially those with depression or despressive negative thinking about themselves, who have had a hard time receiving gifts, compliments and just good things from others and the universe. Another reason why dogs and cats are so therapeutic. Even the most depressed person will engage in physical love exchange with their animal when they will not talk to any other human.

But I digress. Back to my series about Celebrating Rituals of Different Cultures. When I started it, my intention was to focus on major life events we all share as humans: pregnancy, birth, birthdays, weddings and commitment ceremonies, and funerals.

Gift giving is an interesting ritual to look at and compare attitudes of Westerners and Easterners and learn about specific countries and their customs around gift giving. The Irish people and the Greek people are known for their very wonderful hospitality, which is a wonderful form of “gift” giving: sharing your home with loved ones and even people you hardly know, or just generally making sure people visiting your country feel welcomed. I don’t know if they do this anymore or ever did it, but I swear I’ve seen a lot of movies where, the people are walking down the stairs of the airplane (old movies), and Hawaiians, especially girls in traditional clothing, come and put Leis around their neck (sort of big necklaces made of just flowers… ) Well, I just looked it up and the Honolulu airport has a special welcome recording greeting.

Yes, there are many many different ways of giving and receiving. One of my patients once said of psychological receiving that you can’t “sort of” receive a little of something (like love, compassion, empathy, etc.), you either receive it in full or if you sort of can’t receive it all, you are really not receiving anything…

Japan, of all countries, is known for their rituals of gift giving. I don’t think any other country matches this cultural ritual around giving gifts, physical things mostly, like tea sets, chocolates, Japanese candies which are visually quite beautiful but quite strange tasting to my American taste buds for sweets, vases, etc. as well as envelopes of money. I lived in Tokyo from 1977-1979 and I remember my parents coming home from events with beautifully wrapped gifts. (Nobody comes close to how wonderfully the Japanese know how to wrap gifts. I remember being intrigued and entranced by the beautiful paper and the way it was folded, by the diagonal approach to the paper and trying to imitate the folds of the wrapping many times…) My father would return from business meetings with gifts he’d been given. One man who was a client of his somehow found out I loved music boxes and gave me several beautiful ones that my father would bring home for me. But what is this constant giving of gifts to mark a special meeting, negotiation, business deal, lunch, dinner, party? How did this begin and why is it done?

Here is an explanation of the origin of the gift giving, and no surprise, it actually brings us back to customs around funerals and dead “ancestors”, so I guess this post is still connected to my funeral customs post…: The Japanese have a special holiday for thinking of the dead. Wow. I think that’s a great idea, to devote a day to that.

Major Gift Giving Holidays

The two most popular occasions for gift giving in Japan happen twice a year. Ochugen falls during the middle of the year and Oseibo falls at the end of the year.

Ochugen originated as an offering to families who had a death in the first half of the year and still takes place two weeks before Obon, the Japanese holiday for honoring the dead. Nowadays, gifts are given as a gesture of gratitude to the people who are close to them. Bosses, colleagues, parents and relatives are common recipients.

Oseibo is more widely observed and began from the custom of placing offerings on ancestors graves. Oseibo gifts are typically given to friends, colleagues, teachers, clients or customers, and to anyone he or she is indebted to. These gifts are specifically given to pay back favors received during the year. The value of the gift does matter as the gift reflects the giver’s evaluation of social indebtedness that he or she has incurred. The recipient can accurately determine the value of the relationship by the monetary value of the gift. Oseibo gifts are typically sent out by the 20th of December.

Gifts commonly given for Ochugen and Oseibo range from department store items to food and alcoholic beverages. People receiving gifts for these occasions usually express their gratitude either by writing or calling the person who gave them the gift.”

I also found on this website an explanation of the importance of the way the gift is wrapped. It is considered rude to open a gift when you receive it, which explains why back in 1978 my parents would come home with gifts that were always beautifully wrapped:

When giving gifts or sending presents in Japan, it is customary to show special care not only to the contents, but to the way a gift is wrapped and the wrapping itself. In Japanese culture, gift wrappingcan be as important as the gift, where the gift is viewed as a form of communication between the giver and the receiver. The chosen gift wrapping serves an important role in shaping the messaging associated with the gift. In short, the wrapping is considered as part of the gift itself and should reflect both the gift being given and the emotions behind the gift.

The distinction of a gift being wrapped is an important one when it comes to receiving a gift. Except among close family members, gifts must not be unwrapped in front of the donor of the gift. The recipient should wait until later to open the gift.”

This is from the following website post: http://www.giftypedia.com/Japan_Gift_Giving_Customs

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