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Countries around the globe might have differing religions and customs, but there is one tradition that’s common worldwide — giving gifts. In some countries, the gesture of gift-giving itself has strong significance — dictating exactly how the gift should be handed over. Other nations believe that presentation is everything — down to the color of the wrapping paper and bows. From taboo gifts to special holidays, check out these unique international gift-giving traditions that might inspire you to make the holidays even more special.
Giving gifts in China revolves around respect and gratitude, and there are specific rules in regards to etiquette. Chinese gift-giving etiquette demands that the recipient refuse the gift at least two or three times, so as not to appear too greedy. The giver is required to insist upon the offer until their present is finally accepted. Another important tradition includes offering the gift with both hands as a sign of respect. The color of the wrapping paper is also significant — red wishes the recipient good luck, gold will bring good fortune, and yellow extends happiness.
In Japan, gift-giving is an important ritual among family members, friends, and business partners. Gifts are usually offered during the first meeting between potential business partners and continually exchanged as the relationship develops. Presentation is crucial — the wrapping paper shouldn’t be too ostentatious, so using pastel-colored wrapping paper and bows is best. The recipient is expected to open the gift in private and must later reciprocate the gesture as a way to show gratitude.
Indian tradition specifies the exact way a gift should be handed over. Since the left hand is considered unclean, it should not be used for eating, shaking hands, or giving gifts. Gift-givers must always offer the gift using the right hand in order to be respectful. Gifting money is also a welcomed tradition in India, but the amount of cash or value of a check must always be an odd number. Instead of $50, $51 is considered more appropriate since odd numbers are good luck.
Since Iceland is one of the most literate countries in the world, the country’s holiday gift-giving tradition is every book lover’s dream. The tradition is called “Yule Book Flood” and it begins before Christmas, when the country distributes a free national catalog that contains every recently published book in Iceland. Using the catalog, gift-givers choose books for their loved ones and then present the gifts on Christmas Eve. Then everyone spends the evening happily reading their newly acquired books at home.
Although the concept of Santa Claus or “Bobbo Natale” in Italian is prevalent in parts of Italy, La Befana maintains a larger presence for children throughout the country. The kindly witch delivers presents on January 6, a day celebrated as the Epiphany in the Catholic church. Bearing some similarities to Saint Nick, La Befana flies through the air on a broomstick, dropping either cherished gifts or lumps of coal in children’s stockings, depending on their most recent behavior.
In Scotland, New Year’s Eve is referred to as Hogmanay, a holiday that originated from winter solstice celebrations held by the Vikings. There are some interesting traditions surrounding gift-giving on this holiday. To bring good luck and fortune, the first foot to cross your home’s threshold on New Year’s Day should be a dark-haired male, since blonde hair used to be associated with invading Vikings and their raids. This person should also bring symbolic gifts that include whiskey, coal, salt, shortbread, and black buns.
Mexico isn’t as strict with its gift-giving etiquette as other countries, but there are certain unwritten rules surrounding the tradition. For example, guests should bring gifts for each child in the home, as a way to show respect to the hosts. Gifts are also opened immediately, with the recipient showing much enthusiasm to express their gratitude. Gift-giving in Mexico also isn’t limited to the living. On the Day of the Dead celebrated on November 1 and 2, many Mexicans offer tequila, sugar skulls, or marigolds to their loved ones who have passed, leaving them on graves or alters to be received on the other side.
While people in many countries typically present diamonds to seal an engagement, Fiji prefers to use whale teeth. Tradition in the Oceanic country dictates that the groom’s family presents the bride’s family with the tooth of a sperm whale, known as a tabua. Believed to have supernatural powers, a tabua is highly prized and is supposed to bring good luck to the marriage. In addition to engagements, they also are traditionally gifted at funerals, weddings, and births. Since they are both expensive and rare, they are considered more precious than other gemstones.
Similar to the Chinese tradition, gift-giving etiquette in Ireland requires that the recipient must refuse the gift at least twice before accepting it on the third offer. This tradition dates back to the Irish Potato Famine, a period in history that marked mass starvation and destitution throughout the country. During this time, many people had nothing to offer their guests, although the old rules of hospitality dictated otherwise. For example, if a cup of tea was offered, guests would refuse at least three times to ensure they weren’t being too burdensome on their host by taking precious resources unnecessarily.
Gift-giving is common in Saudi Arabia, but it also has very strict rules. Men are not allowed to give women individual gifts, especially flowers, as that would be considered inappropriate. In turn, it is also forbidden for men to receive anything that is either gold or silk, as such extravagant gifts go against Islamic tradition and may embarrass the recipient or make them feel obligated to return the favor. For a man, silver is considered the most suitable present.
Many cultures don’t approve of the act of spitting, especially when it comes to gift-giving, but for the nomadic Maasai people of Kenya, it is essential. The Maasai recognize spitting as a blessing, which is why it’s common for gifts to be spit on before being presented to the recipient. The act of spitting on a gift (or spitting on anything for that matter) demonstrates respect toward the recipient and wishes them good luck. Even more common is the act of spitting on newborn babies and brides, or before shaking hands in greeting.
Thai culture prizes courteousness, as its gift-giving traditions demonstrate. As opposed to some cultures where pricey gifts are appreciated, Thai people prefer to give inexpensive yet thoughtful gifts, so the recipient won’t feel uncomfortable. When unwrapping gifts, it is considered rude to rip the paper. Instead, it should be removed with care and set aside. Also, as a division of nine, the number three is considered to be good luck in Thai culture, so giving gifts in groups of three is sure to be well-received.
In Sweden, guests are always expected to arrive bearing gifts for the host. These gifts most often include chocolates, flowers, or cake. Above all else, a bottle of wine or liquor is likely to be most appreciated, as alcoholic beverages are very expensive in Sweden. Upon arrival, guests should also give candy or inexpensive toys to any children who live in the home. Alternatively, Swedes are very likely to gift Dalecarlian horses, which are hand-carved, red wooden horses found in many Swedish homes, to people from other cultures.
Unlike other Christian countries, however, Bolivians don’t traditionally exchange gifts on Christmas Eve. Instead, December 24 kicks off the holiday season, as most Bolivians attend Catholic mass and gather with their families. The holiday continues until Epiphany on January 6, when Bolivian children receive gifts. The night before Epiphany, children put their shoes outside their doors. By the next morning, the Three Kings will have left presents in the children’s shoes.
Germans love to celebrate Christmas and have many gift-giving traditions. One popular tradition is the use of an Advent calendar. Not only is the calendar a countdown to Christmas, but it’s also a way for Germans to receive daily gifts, such as chocolate, alcohol, or toys throughout December. And it’s not always Santa Claus or der Weihnachtsmann who brings gifts to children. In German tradition, Christkind — a young, blonde girl whose name translates to “Christ Child” — is the figure responsible for delivering gifts to children on Christmas.
In Russia, giving flowers is a complex ritual that reveals unspoken messages between the giver and receiver. For example, if a man is interested in a woman romantically, he should offer her a bouquet of three flowers to show his initial interest. Should the courtship continue, a bouquet of five flowers will demonstrate his developing feelings, seven flowers will show an intention of marriage, and nine flowers express a sense of deep love and respect. Even-numbered flowers should never be sent, as bouquets with two, four, or six are meant for funerals.
Gifts are commonly presented on important days in Turkey, such as birthdays, Eid, and New Year’s, but no event is more important than a Turkish wedding. Weddings are extravagant affairs in Turkey, and gift-giving matches this opulence. During the reception, wedding guests are expected to pin gold coins or paper money to the bride and groom’s clothing. During the process, each fiscal amount is announced to the crowd. Later, the same amount of money is expected to be returned, should the guest ever get married themselves.
In Egypt, the presentation of the gift is as important as the gift itself. Presents must be wrapped twice-over — first in plain paper and then again in bright-colored wrapping paper. When offered to the recipient, the gift must be given with either the right hand or both hands, as the left hand is considered unhygienic. Lastly, when a man gives a gift to a woman, he must say the gift is from his mother, wife, or sister. Otherwise, the act would be considered highly inappropriate.
Although gift-giving is common throughout South Korea, there are many rules regarding the practice. In general, expensive gifts should not be given, as the receiver will feel compelled to reciprocate with a gift of the same value. It’s also unacceptable to give anything sharp, such as knives or scissors, as their sharpness may bring bad luck to the recipient. Lastly, cards should never be written in red ink since the color is associated with death, as is anything gifted in a set of four.
As an amalgamation of different cultures, Singapore has a melting pot of gift-giving traditions. Just like on the mainland, Chinese Singaporeans are expected to decline gifts two or three times prior to accepting and prefer gifts to be wrapped in red or gold paper. They also don’t give any taboo items, such as handkerchiefs (associated with crying and sadness) or umbrellas (the Chinese word for umbrella is similar to the Chinese word for a break-up). For Indian Singaporeans of the Hindu faith, gifts containing leather or alcohol are not permitted. Otherwise, Indian Singaporeans will appreciate brightly-wrapped gifts in red, yellow, or green, as color symbolism is important in the Hindu faith.