Gift etiquette around the world

When do you give gifts in your country? Do you choose a different gift depending on the occasion? And if you receive a gift is it polite to open it straight away or wait until later?

In continuation of our series of collaborative posts by PocketCultures contributors, we bring to you this time the different gift etiquettes across different countries of the world.

Gift Etiquettes around the world -

India

by Arwa, regional contributor for The Netherlands / India

Indian sweets
Photo Credit – Shooz

The diverse cultures, religions, regions and festivals in India collate together to form a wide canvas of exciting colors and emotions. This diversity from the North to the South and East to the West is evident in the differing customs and traditions throughout the country, one such example of which is giving and receiving of gifts.

In India, gifts are generally given on a variety of occasions like weddings, house warming, baby showers, naming ceremony of the child, promotions in work as well as on festivals including Eid, Holi, Diwali, Ganesh Chaturthi, Christmas and New Year. In the recent times, gifts are also exchanged on Father’s day, Mother’s day, Valentine’s day and other such western celebrations.

You are expected to carry a box of sweets (mithai) or dried fruits when visiting friends and families on festive occasions. Gifts like flowers and chocolates are the best bet on most celebrations like birthdays, child birth etc. Close families and friends may gift items like toys, clothes, books, and electronic gadgets on such occasions.

Since white is the color of mourning and death, white flowers must never be given. Similarly, gifts are usually wrapped in red, blue, green or yellow colored wrapping papers as these are colors of celebration and prosperity. Gifts of cash are very common and are given on weddings, baby shower and house warming. The cash should be in odd units of 11, 51, 101, 501 and so on since these numbers are considered auspicious.

The value of the gift is not considered as important as the feelings attached to the gift. Also, additional care is taken to ensure that leather gifts are never given to the Hindus (since most of them are pure vegetarians) and gifts involving alcohol are avoided at all costs to Muslims.

Either the right hand or both the hands are used (but never the left hand) to give the gift. The recipient may either be the couple (in case of house warming, weddings etc) or the child (for birthdays) or the mother (baby showers, naming ceremonies).

Unlike other countries, the gifts are generally not opened in front of everyone, unless specifically asked to do so. Rather they are kept aside and are unwrapped only after all the guests leave. Lastly, return gifts are important and are usually given during weddings, and birthday parties.

United States

by Sean, regional contributor USA

Gifts in United States
Photo Credit – Tanjila

Whether a gift is given or not, greeting cards are used frequently, even in the electronic age, for: Birthdays, Christmas, Father’s/Mother’s Day, weddings, Thanksgiving, Easter, and Halloween (in order of most to least common). Though many people only send a card for birthdays, Christmas, weddings, and funerals.

Common gifts are toys for children, and for adults: chocolate, fine foods, books, clothes, tools, jewelry, or “gag gifts” meant to be “bad” gifts, in an intentional way. “Gag” gifts are common for milestone anniversaries and birthdays (30th, 50th…).

Gifts are generally opened towards the end of an event or birthday party, often with the guests watching the recipient open and examine the gifts. The opening of gifts is generally the last “agenda item” for any celebration that involves gifts. The person being celebrated will examine a gift, determine who it’s from, and then open it. If there is no party per se, and the gift is only a card, even if it contains cash often this will not be opened in front of the giver. The major exception is weddings; gifts are never opened during a wedding, only after all the guests have left and the gifts have been taken back to the home.

Sometimes, the host or another person will collect the gifts at the door, or there may be a special table or area set up to place the gifts on.

On receiving a gift, thank the person, often using “face saving” language: “oh, you shouldn’t have,” or “this is too nice”. Hugs or kisses may be exchanged. The trick with gift-giving, is that gifts do need to be appropriate for the giver and receiver. For a group of people without much money, a $5,000 watch will end up hurting relationships, as they know they’ll never be able to reciprocate a $5,000 gift. The reverse holds true for people with lots of money.

Return gifts are not a must, but thank you cards are very common. Thank you cards should usually be sent out the same week that the gift is received. They should typically be hand-written, and mention the gift in questions specifically. For a gift of food, the old adage is that it’s rude to return a plate without anything on it (ie, you should return the plate with a food gift of your own).

Turkey

by Senem, Guest Contributor from Turkey

"beşi bi yerde"
Photo Credit – elif ayse

In Turkey we can always find a reason to buy and receive gifts. Bayrams (public holidays), religious ceremonies and weddings are some of these.

We can start with religious Bayrams, Eid for example. At these times giving a gift is a must. Turkish families try to buy the best clothes for their children at this special religious event. When I was little I remember waiting impatiently for Bayram morning to wear my new shoes and skirts. As a Muslim country we don’t celebrate Christmas but recently Turkish people have started to buy presents for the New Year.

Then come the wedding ceremonies. In Turkey, getting to the wedding ceremony is a long process. There are three parts and we give presents at each one: the boy’s family asks permission from the girl’s family; an engagement party to announce to the parents and friends; then the henna party for the future bride’s friends and finally the wedding! At the wedding we give gold coins to the couple. We have three types of coin: small, medium and big. Which one should we pick? Easy…for example if you are the groom’s father’s friend buy the small one, if you are a relative choose the medium one and if you are a close childhood friend get the big one! If you are a colleague choose the big one and share the cost with your other colleagues.

Next, newborn baby presents. Family is the most important thing in Turkish society so a newborn is an occasion to give a gift. Normally we visit the family’s house and give money or baby clothes. We also give gifts to boys at their circumcision feasts, young men leaving their home for military duty (sometimes gold coins like at a wedding) and for birthdays. For us birthdays are important and should be remembered with a gift. Depending on your relationship you can buy clothes, mobile phones, jewels for women, electronic items for men, books and definitely toys for the kids.

When you enter the house the first thing you immediately do is hand over the gift. The person who received the gift will never wait until the guest has gone. They should open it in front of the giver, thank and tell them how much they like the gift. If it is a birthday party he/she will open it after the cake with the other gifts.

For weddings we have a special ceremony to open the gifts. Normally the couple will come to your table to welcome you and at that moment you should give your gift (the gold coin). The bride has a little white bag where you can leave the gold coin, or you pin it on her dress (some brides even wear a special white or red ribbon where you can pin the coins).

The return gift is a must in Turkey, especially at weddings, for newborn babies and circumcision feasts. If someone buys a medium coin for your wedding then you should return the same size for his or her wedding. If you buy the little coin, it won’t be a problem of course but they will think that your relationship is not strong like before, or maybe you have a problem with the groom.

In Turkey we follow a lot of unwritten rules when buying presents. Personally, sometimes I like these rules. It makes gift buying easier; on the other hand it means I am not using my imagination any more.

Yes like always the medallion has two sides:

black and white,
the yin and yang,
husband’s friend and small coin,
newborn baby and big coin..!

Argentina

by Ana, regional contributor Argentina

Christmas in ArgentinaBack home in Argentina, presents are given on a handful of occasions: birth and birthday, Children’s Day (on the second Sunday of August), Mother’s Day (on the third Sunday of October), Father’s Day (on the third Sunday of June), Epiphany (only children get presents. This Christian holiday on January 6 celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Infant Jesus), graduation day, wedding, First Communion, Christening, Bar/Bat Mitzvah and other religious occasions.

Photo Credit – kweezy

In the case of birthdays, the presents are generally handed as soon as the guests arrive to the party. The birthday boy or girl opens it on the spot. It is considered bad manners to say you don’t like it. The gifts could be anything, it depends on age and gender. Christmas is different. We have huge parties on Christmas Eve and open the presents at midnight. Epiphany is quite fun for children: they wake up to a lot of presents left by the Magi (or rather, their parents) under the Christmas tree.

For Christenings, it is customary for the godparents to give girls a gold medallion or boys a gold cross engraved with the child’s initials and the date. Some people give these kind of presents when a child dear to them is born. For First Communions it is common to give money.

Read the other posts in this series highlighting a typical school day, superstitions and greetings around the world.

Read more about:
India: Rakhi – celebrating the brother-sister bond
USA: Fireworks, personal freedom and contractual obligations
Turkey: Kemal Pasha dessert, Turkish relative of Gulab Jamun<
Argentina: Urban pigrims in Buenos Aires

About the author

Arwa Lokhandwala
An Indian expat in the Netherlands, Arwa Lokhandwala is a freelance writer, writing on travel, culture and expat related issues. A voracious reader, a curious traveler, and an amateur photographer, she has featured in a number of online publications including the Lonely Planet. She loves people, colors, festivals, and cultures. Read about her expat tales and travel adventures on her blog - Orangesplaash.
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8 Comments

  • Great post everybody! Gift etiquette is one area which seems to have a lot of differences between cultures. I once took a gift to a Bulgarian friend who was having a party and was quite worried when she put the present away discreetly in a corner. I thought maybe I was not meant to bring a present or something.

    Having said that, our traditions in the UK are very similar to the US ones that Sean describes. We give greetings cards a lot too.

  • I liked the gold coin tradition in Turkey. And I found one similarity! We and the Turkish open birthday presents on the spot. I don’t think I could wait ’til the end of the party!

  • Since moving to Turkey I always wondered where the gold coin tradition comes from. I’ve been to weddings in Spain and Italy where it’s traditional to give money as a present, but not gold. Do you know the answer Senem?

  • senem

    Hi Ana;
    Gold coin is a “saving tool” in Turkey.
    Turkish people trust gold coins because it’s value is not changing so quickly like the value of the Turkish money.
    We’ve suffered a lot about our irregular and chaotic economy since 1923.(the year when Turkish Republic is established)
    Because of this reason we chose gold coins – more reliable ..it’s value is guaranteed by the government as well.

    I hope i explained well;)

  • senem

    Also you opened the gifts quickly in Argentina.I like this because i am really an impatient person;)
    I think i love the Indian gifts
    Sweets and dried fruits hmmmm yummy!

  • very good

  • hi ana

  • Lovely post ! Great insights to etiquette of gifting from different countries .
    Also, being an Indian I wanted to see what is written about Indian tradition and I am quite happy to read it. :)