Giving Food as Gifts


George Cruikshank ‘At Home in the Nursery or The master and Misses Twoshoes Christmas Party’ 1835

We all love food. We eat it every day, we incorporate it into celebrations, and we even use it as gifts – it is the most basic form of offering. Most family get-togethers nowadays will often incorporate food, with the practice often helping maintain relationships. The gifting of food is still a very common practice; I frequently gift my grandparents with chocolates and biscuits, despite my grandfather having diabetes… he likes what he likes.  However, how common was the gifting of food in Early Modern England?

Gift giving is explained as having two features: the first is the exchange of goods, with the value of gifts being uncertain and the time between giving and exchanging being at the discretion of those involved.[1] The meaning of the gift typically outweighs its value. The second feature of gift giving is that it takes place in a context of reciprocal interactions, with parties usually exchanging gifts at the same time.[2] 

The gifting of food was important in Early Modern society for the maintenance of relationships, peacemaking, corporate alliances and sometimes as a doctrine of charity to those who may be less well off. If you engage in readings regarding Medieval or Early Modern life, you might notice that food gifts sometimes appear as ‘rewards’. Food was not the only thing exchanged. During the period we see items such as silverware, furniture and money also exchanged. Neighbourly exchange of goods was common within this period. There was still a popular belief in witchcraft and some people thought it best to please their neighbours to avoid being cursed or being subjected to accusations. Often, peasants gave hens to their lords at Easter and other times throughout the year as well as their rent which needed to be paid.

Gift Giving at Christmas

Christmas has often been known as a time of over-spending and overindulgence, some might argue that we spend far too much money on gifts for loved ones and friends. Within the Early Modern period, gift giving typically commenced on New Years Day. Some people gave items of monetary value, whereas others exchanged produce. This included apples, eggs or a fat capon (a castrated cockerel specially fattened for the table).[3]  




Langley and Company, ‘Langley’s New Twelfth Night Characters’, 1818

Foods for the Feast

Dining was a common practice for those living in Early Modern society. The upper-class had certain cultural practices which were to be followed. This included things like elaborate dinner clothing, meal preparations, entertainment and the exchange of goods.

In the countryside, the gentry and elite members of society often showed their hospitality by hosting entertainment for their friends and neighbors. This included music, feasts and performances, especially during the Christmas period. Guests showed their gratitude by giving gifts to the hosts. A gentleman from Sussex, Timothy Burrell often invited friends, family, and dozens of the “humbler neighbors and their wives”.[4] Richer neighbors gifted the Burrell household with presents such as large quantities of cheese and butter, wine, sugar, chocolate, ducks, and pigeons.[5] The “humbler” attendees would bring “small tributes”. [6]

The Early Modern Period saw some of the most notable exchanges in history, including the Columbian Exchange. Despite this well-known, large scale form of exchange, it is important to remember the small transactions that occurred within communities as tokens of gratitude and appreciation. Remember, ‘It is better to give an apple than to eat it’!


[1] Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos, ‘Gifts and Favors: Informal Support in Early Modern England’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 72, No. 2 (June 2000), pp. 229.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hannah Flemming, ‘Christmases past to present(s): how the great British Christmas took shape’ (2011), <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/london/8966907/Christmases-past-to-presents-how-the-great-British-Christmas-took-shape.html> [accessed 28 April 2019].

[4] Timothy Burrell, ‘Journal and Account Book of Timothy Burrell, from the Year 1683 to 1714’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, vol. 3 (London, 1850), pp. 125.

[5] Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos, ‘Gifts and Favors: Informal Support in Early Modern England’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 72, No. 2 (June 2000), pp. 315.

[6] Timothy Burrell, ‘Journal and Account Book of Timothy Burrell, from the Year 1683 to 1714’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, vol. 3 (London, 1850), pp. 126.


1 thought on “Giving Food as Gifts

  1. The role of gift giving, especially food, is really interesting in this period!
    I remember seeing items on the royal menus that stated where food had specifically come from such as someone’s estate.

    Do you think that exchanges of food had the same value at lower levels in society as with the gentry and royal household?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.