How culture and tradition can influence the choice of gifts around the world

I love the positive energy I feel when choosing a gift for someone’s birthday. When interacting with people from different cultures I discovered that different people’s belief systems and traditions can have a huge influence on how presents are received and how easy it is to offend by selecting the wrong gift that has a negative connotation in another person’s culture.


I remember my mom once received a gift that came with a beautiful white envelope and completely black card inside. She was so horrified by the sight of the black card that she did not even want to touch it. You see, in our Bulgarian culture, the colour black is related to death and a black card can be perceived as the bearer of terrible news. My mom did not want to touch the gift so as not to invoke any bad luck upon herself. We also do not gift a knife because this means we wish the person harm. If you really want to gift it, you request the receiver to “pay” you a few small coins so that they “bought” the knife from you.


Interestingly the knife features as a terrible gift choice in so many traditions that it is best you do not consider it as a gift altogether unless you know exactly how to present it not to cause offence.


So how do we show our gratitude and appreciation for a person while recognizing their traditions and cultural beliefs?


Let’s look at some other interesting traditions from around the world and the multitude of cultures that make up South Africa


Moroccans seem to put a lot of meaning in the colours of the gift. They don’t give gifts in colors like clear pink and yellow, these colors are associated with diseases and death.


You also never give a white big piece of fabric or sugar cones as a gift, the white material is associated with death. Other ‘no go’s’ are knives and any sharp objects. These symbolize an intention to sever a relationship. They offer gifts with two hands or the right hand. Never use the left hand alone, if you do then it means that the gift is not coming from the heart.


In the Hindu culture, it is known not to gift anything made in leather, as the skin from a cow is considered offensive due to high worship of a cow.  Any gift wrapped in black or white is unlucky. Gifts or anything for that matter must be given to the next person with your right hand. Handing anything with your left hand displays rudeness (same as Morocco).


Chinese people love gifts and use many occasions to give gifts to people. They have many traditions and beliefs around gift giving, when and how to give, what colour and more. To keep safe, remember to stay away from 2 items that are definitely a “no go” in the Chinese tradition: clocks and umbrellas. The first signifies sending someone on their final journey and the later signifies separation.


The German custom dictates that you never wish a happy birthday before the actual day. No wishing, gifts, cards, flowers, before the day, as it is considered very bad luck.


Don’t give carnations in Russia, they are often used as grave flowers and not received well on other occasions. Do not give yellow flowers in Russia, they symbolize separation. The bouquet should always have an uneven number of flowers. Even number is only used for funerals.


Many South American countries celebrate birthdays with a piñata, a papier-mâché animal stuffed with sweets (my personal favourite tradition). Kids are blindfolded and have to hit the animal until it bursts open and spills the sweets, that are then shared by everyone.


In the USA giving a woman a perfume or clothing as a gift is considered too personal and inappropriate by some.


According to the old French customs, the guests are not supposed to bring wine to a dinner party, because it is the host’s responsibility to choose the wine. These days this is not enforced strongly but, if you were to take wine with, you should make sure it is of the highest quality you can afford. Flowers are sent to the host the day before to allow them time to arrange them for the dinner party.


Some South African cultures give a key for a 21st birthday to symbolise responsibility and adulthood.


Other interesting South African cultural gift traditions:


In the Sepedi culture, during the traditional wedding ceremony, the husband’s family needs to purchase certain gifts for the bride’s family. This includes blankets, jackets for the uncles and certain other gifts for the bride. Very important to remember that the husband’s family cannot buy shoes for the bride as it signifies that they want the bride to leave that family.


In the Tswana culture shoes are also considered a bad gift choice, the person you give shoes to will walk out of your life.


The Xhosa tradition is luckily open to any gift so shop to your heart’s content. The only strict rule with gifts is that when getting married the bride must buy a gift for all her husband’s siblings and parents.


In recent years, South Africa, introduced a new way of showing that we care for someone on their birthday and I absolutely love this new tradition. On the 18th of July, Nelson Mandela’s birthday, all South Africans celebrate the birth of this amazing person by giving 67 minutes of their time towards a good cause and helping others in need. What better way of showing that we care, than taking some of our time and selflessly dedicating it to helping improve the world around us?