Gift-Giving Culture: How Did We Get Here? | EJ Gift Cards
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An Examination of the Historical, Cultural, and Economic Underpinnings of Gift-Giving around the Holidays

If you grew up in the United States, you almost certainly can recall the traditions of Christmas from your childhood. For millions of Americans, this season represented goodwill, community, and heavy doses of that jolly man in the red suit. And regardless of culture, creed, or religion, this season also represents the excitement and expectation of gifts; indeed, over 92% of Americans recognize Christmas in some way, and an overwhelming majority of them associate the holiday with gift-giving.

Because this has been the typical experience for so many Americans, it has become almost axiomatic in nature—we celebrate Christmas this way because we celebrate Christmas this way. But if we take a step back and remove ourselves from the influence of interpersonal subjectivity, we can see a rather interesting cultural rite of passage worth further examination. Why do we celebrate Christmas this way?  And how has this perspective impacted our tradition of gift-giving?

First off, Who is this Santa Guy?

The Yule Lads. Tomte. Belsnickel. La Befana. Krampus. Father Christmas. No matter where you are in the world, legends abound concerning mythical men or creatures that handle gift-giving responsibilities, primarily for the benefit of the children of this society. Their styles may differ—Father Christmas is typically represented as a benevolent patriarchal figure, while Krampus is represented as the proverbial stick for the “naughty list”—but regardless of differences, they tend to coalesce around a host of shared characteristics in a similar time of the year.

According to researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), the American version of Santa Claus is largely attributable to the St. Nicholas figure of historical Turkey. In fact, St. Nicholas was originally the figurehead for an entirely different holiday—St. Nicholas Day on 6th of December—but over time, he was culturally melded into the Christmas Day ethos. This migration also brought over many of the gift-giving traditions previously associated with St. Nicholas Day. The average celebrator of Christmas would be shocked to discover what Dr. Michael Laver, History Chair and Associate Professor, consistently states from his research: Christmas Day wasn’t associated with gift-giving until this merger, and much of the growth of commercial side of the holiday was driven by the early development of large department stores in newly urbanized sections of early 19th century American cities.

What About That Red Suit?

The research conducted at RIT and confirmed elsewhere has shown us some of the gift-giving roots of the holiday, but where did our visual of Santa come from to begin with?  Your snarky friend on the Internet will probably tell you that he was invented by the corporate minds at Coca-Cola to help sell more soft drinks in the downtime that was winter for the company. While this is a fun theory, it falls a bit short: we have evidence of the jolly man with the red suit and white beard going all the way back to 1906, about 30 years before Coca Cola started associating their famous soft drink with the guy. But their coopting of the character certainly helped the culture coalesce around the singular concept of the man in the red suit. To that point, there had been multiple competing versions of the visual concept, ranging from green suits to laurel crowns. The Coca Cola campaign certainly acted as an accelerator for the cohesion around the modern Santa, but they didn’t invent it within their corporate headquarters. It evolved culturally over generations to the Tim Allen-version we grew up with in the United States.

What Does This Leave Us With?

The researchers at RIT expanded their work beyond Christmas to examine the broader fundamentals of gift-giving culture and expectations of reciprocity. They examined Japanese cultures of gift-giving alongside Mexican traditions among the Yucatec Maya, and compared their findings to the original academic investigations of Marcel Mauss, a French anthropologist and sociologist. Their findings showed global similarities in gift-giving traditions and expectations of reciprocity.

According to Dr. Kray, we can expect these gift-giving holidays to be around for quite a while. “Every Christmas, people feel overwhelmed with the pressures of gift-giving,” she stated. “I know that it’s something that people feel a lot of stress about, but it’s an obligation we can’t get out from under without changing relationships. A sense of obligation can be incredibly powerful. I think that once a gift-giving tradition has been set, it’s very hard to break that tradition.”

To put it another way, most Americans don’t see the fluidity and relatively arbitrary nature of Christmas gift-giving to be a reason to not engage in the behavior. Indeed, most Americans feel the pressure Dr. Kray talked about during every holiday season, but love to continue on with the traditions and rituals they grew up with anyways. But regardless of our desire to continue giving and receiving gifts, are we able to do it particularly well?   

Our Gift-Giving Issues

Gift-giving is important. It has evolved culturally to become a critical component of human interaction, serving as a vehicle for defining relationships or reinforcing bonds among family and friends. But on an individual level, it always seems to spark a common bout of anxiety: does this person really want this thing?

Gift Card Issues

Research gives us a pretty definitive answer to this basic question. According to a 2014 study in the Journal of Consumer Research, we’re pretty bad at gift giving. Like, really bad. And the primary reason?  We spend too much time thinking about sentimentality instead of giving that person exactly what they asked for. We really want to see our friends and family light up with excitement at the reception of a totally unexpected yet desirable gift. This is certainly an admirable goal, but the problem breaks down as follows:

  1. Gift-givers have to decide between the desirability of a gift (i.e. the price of a blender, the class of a restaurant, etc.) and the feasibility of the gift (i.e. how easy it is to use the blender, how practical it is to get to that restaurant).
  2. Gift-givers often come down in favor of the desirability of the gift. They view the quality of the gift as the primary characteristic to consider.
  3. Gift-receivers more often favor feasibility. They’d prefer a simpler blender that’s easy to use in comparison to a world-class model that is complicated and difficult to maintain.

The good news is that we seem to be learning as a culture about how to give appropriate gifts. Decades ago it could have seemed gauche or untoward to tell people exactly what you wanted for a holiday or celebration, but it’s far more commonplace in our gift-giving traditions of the present. This can best be seen by the growth in the gift card industry. According to a recent study, the US gift card industry stands at $129 billion today, increasing by around 6% per year. Digital gift cards are the primary mover within that space, growing at a rate of nearly 200% per year.

This all makes a tremendous amount of sense when considering the aforementioned research as well as approval rating disparities: only 25% of Americans report being pleased with their Christmas gifts, compared to 37% of respondents reporting happiness with their gift cards. It’s clear that Americans value gift cards more than receiving gifts; they’re feasible, practical, and flexible enough to allow us to acquire what we really want as opposed to what a distant aunt halfway across the country would assume we’d go for. But massive inefficiencies plague the market.

Unused Gift Cards: A Scourge to Gift-Giving

The good news is we’re getting better and better at giving people the gifts they actually want, and gift cards are enabling more people to achieve this goal. The bad news?  We’re still wasting a tremendous amount of gifts people gave us to get what we wanted by not using these cards.

The 2009 Card Act took a big swipe at this unused market by reigning in exorbitant fees and loopholes inherent in so many gift cards out there. That helped reduce the size of the unused gift card subset from 7% of all gift card balances to only 0.75% now. While that is a significant improvement, that still leaves us with nearly $1 billion in unused gift card funds. In economic terms, we’d call this a market failure; in personal terms, it’s a tragedy.

Our gift-giving mores and traditions are rooted in a good-natured desire to bring joy to your families, friends, and loved ones, but so much of this desire is wasted because of the market structure of gift cards. After all, what are you really going to do with that American Eagle Outfitters gift card that has a few bucks left on it?

Solution: Sell Gift Card

At EJ Gift Cards, our mission is to end this scourge of wasted generosity by helping you sell your unused gift cards. We respect the goodwill and intentions of the people in your life who gave you the gift cards, and we seek to honor them by letting you receive cash for any unused balance you don’t have a use for anymore.

With 3 easy steps, you’ll have cash in your hand while making sure your loved ones’ desire to give you a desirable gift was received. All you have to do is let us know who the merchant is and how much money is left on the card, and we’ll generate an instantaneous offer for you. No pressure either—if you don’t like the offer, you can feel free to hold onto that card and do as you please with it. Think of us as your failsafe for that gift card. If you have the opportunity to use that balance for something you really want, fantastic; if not, sell your gift card to us and get some universally applicable cash to use as you please.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

Our gift-giving traditions and holidays, span centuries. They represent an amalgamation of societies, cultures, and eras of time. We rely on these traditions to build relationships, reinforce foundations, and demonstrate feelings of love and reciprocity for one another. Their cultural evolution throughout time has taken them through a whole host of twists and turns, but it’s left us with an indelible desire to give to others and receive graciously.

This isn’t changing any time soon. Traditions are woven into our rich history as human beings, and the tradition of giving and receiving is one of the oldest and strongest we’ve kept around. We love to do it, but at times fail to execute because of certain cognitive biases and limitations. This has paved the way for the gift card revolution, and this trend will continue to grow as we move forward.

Wherever the gift card movement ventures off into the future, there will always be inefficiencies attributable to wasted card balances. More than just an annoyance, these wastes represent a missed opportunity to honor the relationship-building capabilities of gift reception. At EJ Gift Cards, we think that’s entirely unnecessary.

Our model is set up to give you an easy way out of this conundrum. By giving us a few pieces of easy information, we’re able to offer you a quick quote to sell your gift card for a significant portion of its value. That cash can buy you that feasible gift you’ve been looking for while honoring the intentions of your loved one who wanted that to begin with.

So give us a shot here. There’s no pressure to accept our offer, and you can always decline and opt to use that card for anything you wanted from that merchant. But selling your gift card is a simple way of ensuring you get what you want, while your giver gets what they wanted as well: your happiness. Honor this global tradition of gift-giving, and try us out today!  We’re sure you’ll come back again.