Tag Archives: gift giving

Proverb: A Gift Horse

Text: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Context: G is a 20 years old Animation and Digital Arts major from Birmingham, UK. He is a junior at USC and has been living in the area for 3 years.

This text is one of a few proverbs G could remember, but he believes he first heard this proverb when he was given a hand-me-down article of clothing and was “being ungrateful” about it. He remembers an older family member, likely a grandparent, telling him this.

Interpretation: After being provided with this text by my informant, I asked my roommate (a self-proclaimed ex-equestrian), if they knew anything about the proverb, as it’s quite popular. They confirmed that looking a horse in its mouth isn’t just a silly part of the saying. You can tell a horse’s age and other facts about its health quality by its teeth. The proverb is saying that, if you receive a horse as a gift, you shouldn’t check its mouth for its age or how its cared for – if you are given something as a gift, you shouldn’t try to find fault in it. I find it particularly interested that this is something my informant initially heard when he was younger, in childhood. He specifically remembered it being a hand-me-down, which is worth discussing because he found fault with something used. As a child, he wasn’t initially grateful for something because it was technically a gift, but he also didn’t know that society would expect him to see the used clothing as a gift. An older family member being the one to tell him this proverb is fitting with what we know about proverbs; it’s a piece of advice coming from someone with more life experience. It also speaks to the fact that society teaches humility and gratitude as a kind of obligation to children – as something not instinctual that dictates how we all should behave.

Ethiopian Wedding Gifting Traditions

Informant AM is a graduate student from San Jose California, whose family is originally from Ethiopia. There is a strong Ethiopian diasporic community in San Jose, where much of its traditions live on.


“My grandpa actually told me this, I didn’t know this was a thing. So, friends and family of the bride and groom, they give gifts to the parents, and usually the gift is money. I have no idea why. My grandpa told his friends, like ‘I have 11 children, you don’t have to give me gifts after each child.'”


Informant AM witnessed this tradition in primarily Ethiopian Orthodox Christian weddings. Ethiopia is a country with 36 million Orthodox Christians as of 2017, according to the Pew Research Center (Diamant). Ethiopian Orthodox culture is patriarchal, taking cues from religious hierarchy barring women from positions in the clergy among other examples set by the Bible and Orthodox customs. Similar, Ethiopian Orthodox culture places a heavy emphasis on the knowledge of elders and the importance of family.


Ethiopian wedding gifting traditions reflect the importance of family. For example, informant AM mentioned that it is customary to presents gifts to the couple’s parents, as well as to the couple itself. The practice resembles other traditions practiced in Ethiopia and other countries which emphasize family influence, such as the custom of gaining parental approval before marriage. One such tradition in Ethiopia is known as ሽማግሌ, or shimagelay, which translates to “elder.” In this custom, the groom sends his parents to deliberate with the parents of the bride before a marriage proposal can officially be made. This discussion mainly consists of the groom’s parents convincing the bride’s parents that the groom can adequately take care of the bride, reflecting both patriarchal values and the value of elders’ opinions in Ethiopian culture (Habeshabrides). Yet, informant AM also mentioned that her grandpa advised his friends not to give him gifts, indicating that Ethiopians are willing to be flexible about practicing this tradition for the sake of practicality.

Works Cited:

“Brides of the Blue Nile.” Habeshabrides, https://habeshabrides.com/culture/brides-of-the-blue-nile/. 

A Christmas Pickle


Talking about Christmas traditions

L: Also, whoever– The way we decided who opens their presents first is that there’s one uhhhh ornament on the tree that is a pickle, and whoever finds it first gets to open the first present.

ME: I heard about this from my friend A!!

L: really?

ME: A was talking about a Christmas pickle

L: do you know where it’s from?

ME: no I have no idea

L: I don’t know where it’s from 

ME: her [A’s] guess was like: someone in America was like let’s make a Christmas pickle and try to sell it. That was her guess. 

L: yeah, no yeah, we have a Christmas pickle. It’s sparkly

ME: You have a Christmas pickle that’s uh an ornament 

L: I’ll show it to you

ME: tell me what– tell me about the Christmas pickle

L: ok so the Christmas pickle, that’s from my dad’s side of the family. Ummm. I don’t even know where it came from, I should really ask them. But like I just remember ever since I was a little kid ‘find the pickle.’ it would always be my grandparents who would hide it on the tree and then like we would all search for it. I usually was the one to find it first. I’m not kidding, like almost every year. I don’t know why, I’m usually not that observant, but umm yeah the Christmas pickle. Loved it. Umm yeah, don’t know where it came from. And we would always go from there, youngest to eldest for opening presents. One at a time, always. Like that stuck.


This tradition was shared with me by a friend after going grocery shopping together when we sat in my bedroom to do schoolwork together.

L is a Jewish-American USC student studying sociology who grew up in Colorado.


Christmas games and present-giving styles vary greatly from house to house. The Christmas pickle seems one such game/style. Before this year I was unfamiliar with the tradition.

L says she has no idea where the practice came from, but that she loves it. I offer that the tradition may have been started by a company with the intention of profiting off of selling Christmas pickles. This style of tradition creation is not unprecedented, especially in America.

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.