The origin of…Present

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” William Arthur Ward


A present is an object that is transferred without the expectation of payment. A present is meant to be free, although an expectation of reciprocity might be involved. In ancient cultures, leaders would give gifts to other leaders in exchange for peace or protection. In this way, giving presents might have helped early humans survive.

In Roman times, people gave the emperor and each other strenae (tokens of good luck) during the celebration of Winter Solstice.  First these were evergreen branches, and later on cakes, symbolizing prosperity in the coming year. This evolved into the habit of giving more expensive gifts like clothing, gold or silver, in an attempt to show social status or get special favors.  The celebration of the Winter Solstice goes back to the Babylonians.
They celebrated what is called Saturnalia, the reincarnation of Nimrod (deified as Saturn) as his own son, born at the Winter Solstice. Semiramis, Nimrod´s wife, honored this event by cutting down and decorating trees the 25th of December.  The celebration became a very popular celebration. Around AD 324 Constantine, the new Christian emperor, converted Saturnalia into Christmas to have the masses celebrate the birth of Jesus as well.
Part of the tradition of giving presents for Christmas comes from the Three Wise Men, who each brought a gift to Jesus. These gifts were gold (as a symbol of kingship on earth), frankincense (as a symbol of worship) and myrrh (as a symbol of death).

Giving gifts is an important part of human interaction and can help strengthen the bond with family and friends. Researchers have found that giving a present has a significant impact on the pleasure center of our brains. But giving can also bring on feelings of resentment for each other, when the gift turns out to be less than expected. So we should spend more money on gifts? Not really. A research published in 2009 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that spending more money doesn’t always mean more appreciation*.  Receivers do not base their feeling of appreciation on the price of the gift, but rather on utility (men) or their meaningful and symbolic value (women). Presents that have been explicitly requested are appreciated even more, so it´s not just the thought that counts, it´s the gift that counts…

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something presented :  gift (source: Merriam Webster).

The English word present comes from Old French present and Medieval Latin presentia, from the Latin verb praesentare, to place before, show exhibit.
Dutch cadeau (also spelled kado) comes from French cadeau, gift. Originally it meant decorated capital letter (from Late Latin capitellus, diminutive of caput, head), and it evolved from this to decorated text that is being offered, to banquet with music that is being offered, to present in general.
It is not entirely clear where the Spanish and Italian word regalo comes from.  It probably comes from French régaler, entertain, in the 16th century, coming from galer, to enjoy oneself, to celebrate. It could also come from Latin regalis, royal, originally meaning to celebrate as a king.

Present in other languages:
Dutch: cadeau (or kado)
Spanish: el regalo
Italian: il regalo

* see Flynn, F.J., & Adams, G.S. (2009). Money can’t buy love: Asymmetric beliefs about gift price and feelings of appreciation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 404- 409.


Categories: Objects

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