Tag Archives: gift giving

Secret Santa, but make it competitive

C is 32, he was born in Visalia, California. He grew up with a foster family in California’s San Joaquin Valley. He told me about his foster family’s take on secret Santa.

“There was a family tradition I had with my foster family… every Thanksgiving we would put names in a hat and we would draw names on Thanksgiving and it’s like secret Santa… and we buy that person a gift… whoever’s name we got… and everyone would try and guess who got who and if they guess the person that drew their name, they could have their gift but if they didn’t they would have to wait until Christmas Eve. It got really competitive (laughs)”

Secret Santa is widely credited in America to a philanthropist named Larry Dean Stewart. Stewart struggled in his younger years, and reportedly was giving help and hope by the generous contributions of strangers at low points in his life. When he became a millionaire in the cable and telephone business, he decided to “pay it forward” by handing out $100 bills and large anonymous cash donations (https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna15751409). Secret Santa, however, is a tradition that goes back much further. One Scandinavian tradition known as Julklapp, involves throwing presents into people’s doorways and running away after knocking (https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Julklapp). Around the world, other anonymous gift traditions exist around various holidays, like Amigo Secreto or Angelito on Valentine’s Day in Latin Countries (https://blog.willamette.edu/worldnews/2010/02/22/amigo-secreto/).

Gifting Desserts – Indian Tradition


My informant, AS, is a 19-year-old Indian male who grew up in Mumbai, though he has lived in Southern California for the past three years. His family is Muslim, and he has also had lots of interaction with Hindu culture also. This piece was collected during a facetime call, when I asked him to share some traditions that he has noticed as different between his home culture in India and the US. I refer to myself as SW in the text.


Main Piece:

AS: “So, it is tradition, not just for Indian Muslims but for any Indian, to gift desserts to the people they know, when something good happens to them. Like if I get a new job, it’s gonna be tradition for me to send like a box of sweets to my neighbor, my aunt, my uncle, my friend. It’s just a tradition.”

SW: “So when something good happens to you… then you send stuff to other people.”

AS: Yes… Not just stuff, I have to send like, some sort of dessert.

SW: To how many other people?

AS: That just depends on like… if like, you’re really close with your neighbor you could send it to your neighbor, if you’re not close you’re not obligated to send anything. But like, it could be, just ya know your close family, or it could be the whole fucking world, depends on how close you are with them.


Informant Explanation:

SW: But why do people do it?

AS: I don’t know why they do it, it’s just a thing like the… the saying is like ‘making your mouth sweet,’ that’s what it’s called. Like if you, something good happens to you, it could be anything it could be getting a new job or ya know, getting engaged or something like that. Even getting a promotion or buying a new car.

SW: That’s the reverse of the American thing. Cause the American thing is you send gifts to the person who had something good happen.

AS: Yeah. No, the person to whom it happens has to send. Not gifts, dessert.

SW: I guess like… that’s a way of showing status, right? Cause if something good happens to you, then it’s like well I now have excess to give… would be a way of showing status right?

AS: Not necessarily, no. It’s a… it’s more to do with sharing the joy. Not showing off. 

SW: What kinda desserts? What are we talking here?

AS: Mostly Indian desserts. That’s the tradition.

SW: Like what?

AS: Like… the most common one is (he showed me a picture of kaju katri or kaju katli). That is my favorite fucking dessert. It’s uh… it’s just a sweet. It’s made from like… ground cashews, and you make, like… I don’t know how it’s made it just tastes really nice. 

SW: It looks very good.

AS: Yeah so you get boxes of those, boxes of like, brown balls of fucking sugary flour… 

SW: So is like, Indian culture more focused on like…  ties between, like family and friends than American culture is? It feels like everything is more… 

AS: Ties between family, yes. Like, your… there’s a lot of emphasis on family in Indian culture. Especially Indian Hindu culture, there’s a lot of focus on family and traditions.



As AS mentioned, the tradition of gifting desserts serves to reinforce family ties and important social relationships. Indian culture places a very high importance on these social bonds, especially between family members, and it is therefore important to have traditions and rituals to remind people of these bonds and their obligations to one another. There is probably also an element of reciprocity that is established – since you are sharing your joy, you can expect other people to also share with you.

Red Envelope- Lunar New Year

“This is a custom I have experienced myself. I lived in China for a few months on a scholarship through the US State Department to study Mandarin. While I was there I lived with a host family and one thing they did, that everyone in China does is give red envelopes during the Lunar New Year celebration. It’s supposed to symbolize good fortune and luck for the upcoming year. My host mother told me, “只给新钱,” or to only give clean new bills that haven’t been wrinkled or torn or clean shiny coins.” 


I learned this while studying abroad in Zhuhai, China. It is a city about 40 minutes away from Hong Kong by ferry. I experienced a Lunar New Year celebration and received a few red envelopes from my host family and friends on the program. 


This is a very widely practiced and celebrated custom. I feel so grateful to have experienced it in China where it originated thousands of years ago. I actually introduced my family at home to it and we do red envelopes now every Chinese Lunar New year.

Flower Gifting Custom in Estonia

Background: The informant is a 51 year-old Estonian immigrant who lives in Los Angeles. She continues to participate in Estonian traditions and is a part of the “Estonian House” which is an Estonian community that resides in LA.

Context: The folklore was collected on a scheduled Zoom meeting in which I interviewed two native Estonians who immigrated to the United States and are close friends.

Main Piece:

Informant: “So I remember a couple of things, for example, like you know about gifting I was telling you are already about the flowers that they’ll never give like you know equal amount of plumes. Always give an odd like three plumes. I mean here in America, there are big bouquets always here, but in Estonia, we have like let’s say I’m getting three roses or five roses or, you know, nine tulips.

The informant later explained that you do not give someone an even number of flowers at a wedding or other celebratory gathering, because even numbers of flowers are associated with funerals in Estonian culture.

Interpretation: It seems that flower gifting is quite prominent in Estonian tradition and the number of flowers that one gifts is extremely significant. Because I was unaware of this tradition, I decided to do a little more research. I found that gifting someone a single flower is a sign of love. So, for example, you would gift a loved one a single flower or give someone a flower during a date. However, if you gave that person a big bouquet of flowers that contained twelve flowers (or another even number) that would be seen as somewhat shocking to the recipient as even amounts of flowers tend to be given when mourning the death of a loved one during a funeral. It is quite interesting that Estonians associate different meanings with the number of flowers that one gifts. I am not aware of exactly why even numbers of flowers are associated with funerals, but nonetheless an intriguing gift giving tradition.

Estonian Wallet Gifting

Background: The informant is a 51 year-old Estonian immigrant who lives in Los Angeles. She continues to participate in Estonian traditions and is a part of the “Estonian House” which is an Estonian community that resides in LA.

Context: The folklore was collected on a scheduled Zoom meeting in which I interviewed two native Estonians who immigrated to the United States and are close friends.

Main Piece: “When you give a wallet as a gift to someone, we believed to never give an empty wallet. Always put a little bit of money in it. Like even if it’s a couple of coins. You know for obvious reasons, because then more money will come in.”

Interpretation: This Estonian gift-giving superstition is another way of ensuring good luck for the future. Many of the Estonian gift-giving superstitions I am aware of deal heavily with good luck in the future when it comes to some form of material item. Insecurity it comes to money and food are both things that Estonians seem to be worried about from the various gift-giving customs I have been told about. However, this makes complete sense because Estonia is in no way known for a history of wealth and prosperity. Estonian history is one of subjugation and conquer. This is why many Estonian superstitions reflect an anxiety surrounding whether or not there will be plentiful food or money in the future.