Although the modern American idea of the holiday season was developed just about two centuries ago, gifts had been exchanged in religious contexts for hundreds of years before Christians began to put gifts under the tree.
The association of the holidays with eggnog, Christmas trees, lights and lots of presents first emerged in 19th-century New York. The commercialization of the holiday continued throughout the 20th century, sparking the criticism from some religious leaders who said that it altered the meaning of a holiday that was intended to celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth.
At the end of the monthlong fast of Ramadan, many Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the festival of breaking the fast, by giving gifts to each other and giving charity before Eid prayers. Many wear new clothes. According to the New York Times, some large companies such as Armani and Tommy Hilfiger have started marketing to court Muslim shoppers during Ramadan via marketing efforts.
Mustafa Qazi, a student at Diablo Valley College, celebrates Ramadan each year with family. According to Qazi, celebrations and gift-giving begin after the prayer on Eid Al-Fitr as family comes together. Qazi said relatives usually give small cash gifts, called Eidi, to the children and that his direct family would occasionally give presents to him, such as a Walkman and a Razor scooter.
“For me, (Ramadan is) about family,” Qazi said. “You gain a lot of empathy for the poor because you feel what it is like to be hungry, but it is also a great time of reflection and I connect with a spiritual side of myself.”
Purim traditionally was the most important Jewish holiday associated with gift exchange, according to campus history professor John Efron, who studies the modern German Jewry, and Claude Fischer, a campus sociologist who studies the American Jewry.
The Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible describes Shalach Manos, which means giving portions, and puts an obligation on Jewish people to give gifts of food to benefit their community, and especially the poor, typically given in baskets or bags. Often they contain Hamentashen, which is a traditional baked good, according to Efron.
“One is obliged to give gifts as an expression of community and joy. They should be as abundant as one can afford them to be. They are supposed to be generous,” Efron said. “Most people are poor, so it is an opportunity to feed the poor.”
But in response to the commercialization of Christmas and pressures to assimilate, many Jewish families began to give each other gifts in the mid-20th century, elevating the importance of the holiday, Efron said.
In contrast to Purim, a major holiday in the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah is a minor festival celebrated for eight nights in December. The holiday memorializes a military battle, making it partially religious and partly a national holiday. There is no religious foundation for exchanging gifts on Hanukkah.
This change in the holiday was a second- and third-generation immigrant phenomenon that took place in the 1950s, according to Fischer, who added that earlier Jewish immigrants viewed Christmas as “pretty strange.”
The conservative reform movements have embraced Hanukkah as a compromise and a way to both affirm Jewish American identity and provide a teaching moment for more secular Jews. Orthodox Jews, however, view exchanging gifts during Hanukkah as immoral and an imitation of Christmas, and thus they do not exchange gifts.
Buddhists exchange gifts at certain times of the year and during certain festivals, but these exchanges typically come in the form of donations to institutions such as monasteries and temples, rather than presents to an individual, according to UC Berkeley Buddhist studies professor Alexander von Rospatt.
Extensive gift buying and exchanges are also a staple of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, which lasts for four days and represents the triumph of good over evil. The holiday is important among Hindus even outside of India and has become popular enough abroad to gain the informal title of “Indian Christmas.”
UC Berkeley freshman Sanjeet Paluru said Diwali in his family is mostly a time to build community and celebrate with friends and family and that everyone dresses in traditional Indian garb. He said sweets such as ladoo are given out of a cultural tradition rather than a religious basis and that present exchanges are more typical in India, where it is a national holiday and arguably the most important celebration, than in the United States.
“For me it’s all about being able to connect with my family and friends,” Paluru said. “It’s always been a way for me to celebrate the good things in life — no matter how shitty of a week you’ve been having, you get together to party with your family and friends.”
Despite the historical elements of gift holiday gift exchanges, von Rospatt questioned whether giving gifts during holidays has more to do with modern culture than religion.
“Is that a function of religion or modern society where we live with more than we need?” von Rospatt said. “When I think of textiles, they cost practically nothing now compared to weavers. I am wondering about giving gifts — if some of it has to do with modern capitalistic society and not just religion.”