Why gifting is so common in relationships


It’s not the easiest thing in the world to say to someone, “I love you, how about hanging around with me for the next five or six decades?” Declarations like that are akin to walking naked onto a stage before a packed auditorium: you want to be hearing appreciative murmurings if not rapturous applause and you dread an embarrassed silence or even worse, stifled sniggering.

Given the natural trauma and nervousness surrounding the initial stages of affairs of the heart it is no wonder that humans have developed the idea of offering tokens as indications of our feelings. It is as if the token becomes a proxy for the heart of the giver itself; the intended receiver can smash the proxy token and leave the heart intact. That is why there is such wide array of token that have been invoked over the centuries as physical, and safe, representations of undying love.

Ring, ring

The ring as a symbol of wedding is perhaps the most widespread token of love and commitment. The use of the ring dates back 5000 years to the Egyptian civilisation. The Egypt and worshipped the ring shape as a representation of the sun and moon but also of eternity since the ring has no beginning and no end. The early Egyptians regularly made circular bracelets and finger rings for themselves from the sedges, rushes, and reeds that grew along the banks of the Nile. It was not a huge leap for these symbols of eternity to soon be given as tokens of never-ending love.

The ring as a token of love was placed on the third finger of the left hand (remember the thumb is not a finger) because it was believed by the Egyptians that a vein ran directly from the heart to this finger. The Greeks adopted this belief after they had conquered Egypt through Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. The Romans in turn adopted the Greek belief and dubbed the vein “vena amoris”, “the vein of love”.

The problem with a ring made of reeds was that it had a built-in obsolescence and would wear away after a year or so. This somewhat undercut the eternal nature of the symbol so there was a move toward more lasting materials like leather, bone, and ivory. Once the Egyptians has mastered metallurgy they then moved onto metals. The Romans favoured iron rings and by medieval times the typical metal used for a ring was gold. The problem with early rings was that they were often roughly made and to make up for their cumbersome look gemstones were added. Ruby and sapphires were popular but by far the most popular stone to add to a ring from medieval times through to the present has been the diamond.

Better than a kiss

As Marilyn Monroe reminded us while a kiss may be grand it doesn’t pay the rent which is why, in Marilyn’s estimation, diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Their sheer value though has not been the only reason that diamonds have been a favoured token of love.

Diamonds have a spectacular clarity of appearance that matches well the supposed purity of the love of the giver. They are also the hardest known mineral substance on Earth, at least four times harder than the second hardest mineral corundum from which rubies are sapphires are made. This means with constant use and wear diamonds will endure without blemish (again like the love that they symbolise) where other stones will chip and crack.

Since the Archduke Maximillian of Austria gave a diamond ring to his fiancé in the late 1400s, diamond rings have become the brightest of love’s ambassadors. At the other end of the glittering spectrum comes a no less ardent representation of love: the spoon.

Spoons full of loving

The tradition of carving and giving love spoons is centuries old and is at its most prominent in Wales. The oldest surviving love spoon dates to 1667 but the custom of spoon giving dates back centuries earlier. Before you go scoffing at what your reaction would be to being given a spoon as a token of love, let us for a moment consider the context in which this tradition began.

For centuries the people who lived in the remote and isolated villages and farmsteads of Wales, created everything they needed in life, from materials around them. They spun and weaved the wool of their mountain sheep into cloth. They mined deep into the heart of the hills for iron and copper, shaping it at their village forges into tools. From the forests which clothed the hills and filled the valleys, they carved household objects needed for everyday life; plates, bowls and spoons.

During the long winter nights, families isolated in their crofts would gather around the fire for warmth and light. As they sang the old songs and listened to the stories of ancient days the men would patiently carve spoons; whittling at a piece of wood, teasing a shape from the lifeless block. A unique tool evolved to carve the spoons called the “twca cam” (the curved dagger) with a long handle and hooked blade.

As time went on, the designs on the spoons became more and more intricate. Some were double bowled, or two spoons linked with a wooden chain. The handles became longer and broader, carved with hearts and circles. The soft curves and rounded edges became beautiful in design but impractical for everyday use and were instead given as gifts and then as tokens of love.

The spoons became an invitation from a man to a woman to begin courting, and many believe that the English term of “spooning” derives from this Welsh tradition. Other Celtic groups have similar traditions, in particular the Bretons, who carved special “marriage spoons” for presentation to a couple on their wedding day. As many of the men who carved these spoons would have been illiterate, the love spoons with their intricate designs carried an unwritten message to the women they loved.

The language of flowers

Flowers have come into the arena of love in a similar way to spoons, allowing inarticulate or illiterate men and women to express their desires and intentions.

Flowers have had a long-term connection with love. In Roman times brides would wear coronets of orange blossom and myrtle to symbolise a combination of virginal innocence blended with abundance (as in many children). By Elizabethan times in England flowers were used to encode highly personal messages to prospective loved ones. So established was the language of flowers at this time that each flower given as a gift carried a very set meaning. To name a few:

  • Lavender – stood for silence and also a returned love
  • Pansies – were an invitation to courtship
  • Rose – red rose symbolised pure love, musk rose stood for Beauty, white rose stood for silence.
  • Tulips – were a declaration of love.

By Victorian times the language of flowers had become a well established code. For instance in Norfolk a young man who wore the herb “southernwood” in his buttonhole was announcing to the world that he was ready and available to meet single women. If he met a group of girls and took a fancy to one of them he might ostentatiously sniff his southernwood. If a girl in turn liked the look of the man then she might inhale the aroma of the herb too. The couple could then, having declared their interest, take it to the next level and go for a stroll. It’s doubtful that such tactics would work in the darkened halls of modern-day nightclubs but feel free to give it a go.


You can’t buy love they say, but there was a time when coins were given as love tokens.

In Britain during medieval times, until at least the late 16th century, it was customary for a man to bend a copper coin and give it to his sweetheart as a token of his love and intention of marriage. They were never spent and were always carried by the woman as a demonstration of her loyalty and as a constant reminder to her each time she opened her purse. These coins were usually bowed or even cup shaped. The first settlers also took these customs to America and they survived into the 19th century.

By the 18th and 19th centuries in both Britain and America coins were still used as love tokens but the manner of usage had changed. The poorer working classes usually made their love tokens from copper coins whereas a wealthy man would use a silver or gold coin. To make the token the coin was rubbed down, usually on both sides, until the details of the design, such as a monarch’s head, had been removed. The man then engraved or stamped his own pattern and wording onto the blank disc. When considered that most men who did this were low skilled and illiterate, some of the results are quite remarkable. The decorations included symbols of romance such as hearts pierced with arrows, Cupid’s bow and arrow, flowers, and love birds. The most common feature though was a monogram of the lover’s initials often with some message. Such desecration of the currency would be illegal today as it probably was then, but the effort and skill that went into such design, much as with spoons, was an indication of the intensity and worthiness of a suitor’s love.


Chocolates have become one of the most widely used modern day tokens of love. They hardly represent the time and skill that a well honed spoon signifies but they do have their uses.

Chocolate just happens to melt at the temperature of the human tongue and that liquid cascade of sweet stimulation across the taste buds certainly will enhance the mood of the object of one’s desire. Chocolate also contains mood enhancing chemicals but that is covered in greater detail in the article on Love Potions in this magazine. Suffice it for now to say that chocolate has become a leading love token in the buy and fly society of the 21st century.

Emoticons of love

If the 21st century has anything else to offer the field of love’s tokens, it is the mobile phone and SMS, or text, messaging. Via text you can send your beloved all manner of symbols betokening your love. It might be a long message outlining your feelings, a simple “Y u”, or just an emoticon along the lines of J. You can find more appropriate emoticons floating around in cyberspace if you care to search. Of course you can also send photos of yourself in any mode you feel fit as a token of love. Just beware though, as many have found to their cost, unlike a wooden spoon which can be burned in a fire, your digital tokens of love once out there can never really be taken back.


Token ideas

If you are really at a loss to state your love and want to stand out from the field, here are a few love token ideas that would make a distinct impression.

  • In Ancient Greece a man would give a rabbit to his intended.
  • In medieval Europe men would send women a pair of gloves to a woman and if she wore them she accepted his suit.
  • In the Middle ages at the lists an unwed maiden would tie a scarf for a ribbon from her hair around a Knight’s jousting lance as a sign of devotion.
  • In puritan America a thimble was given as a sign of love.
  • In Regency times a lock of hair would be given to a man by a woman to show her interest.
  • If nothing else, explaining the reasoning behind your unusual gift (particularly if it involves carrying a lance) will allow you to spend time with your beloved.


Terry Robson is the editor of WellBeing magazine, a broadcaster and author. His latest book Failure IS an Option is published through ABC Books.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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