Gift Symbolism 101

Whether directly intended or not, every gift ends up being symbolic. The significance of a gift depends on the relationship between sender and recipient, and the occasion or event itself. Some gifts are pretty self explanatory: Birthday gifts celebrate another year in someone’s life, holiday gifts celebrate the event or occasion that the recipient participates in. But it’s also possible to make gifts even more special by layering symbolism intentionally.

And yes, this works for professional gifts as well! According to a research paper from The Association for Consumer Research, as people age, they become more biased towards symbolic gifts over functional objects. People like gifts that are imbued with meaning, and over time, symbolic gifts generally become even more well-received! 

So what are some symbolic gifts to consider in professional settings? Here are a few to get you started, based on occasion. 

New Growth & Relationships

If you’re celebrating a new relationship with a client, consider gifting a green plant! Green leaves signify hope, renewal, and revival. The popular expression “turning over a new leaf” means offering people a chance to start anew. And it’s not just for Western cultures, either. Bamboo signifies longevity, strength, and grace in Chinese traditions. Plant symbolism goes back as far as the Middle Ages, and plant and flower meanings became popular after Joseph Hammer-Purgstall’s Dictionnaire du language des fleurs was published in 1809, which formalized plant and flower symbolism as a field.

Of course, some plants are harder to care for than others. For those less experienced in plant ownership, air succulents and lucky bamboo is a good bet, as those are both easy to care for. If your recipient has a green thumb, a beautiful bonsai tree or lemon tree are great options.

One tip: There’s also symbolism in dead leaves to watch out for. Dead leaves represent decay and sadness, so ideally your gift will be one that’s easy for your recipient to manage!

Celebrating Milestones

If you’re celebrating a milestone, whether that’s a number of years of working together or an important upcoming launch, consider a gift that represents time.

Hourglasses, clocks, (and hey, even sundials) are all options if you go this route. These gifts are both practical and symbolic. You can even personalize them using your recipient’s interests or hobbies. (For example, if your recipient is a cat owner, why not gift a clock shaped like a cat?) Don’t be afraid to lean into your recipient’s interests to make your gift even more special!

A second tip: Check the culture and the context! For example, in China, it can be considered bad luck to gift clocks.

One timepiece we’d be extra careful about gifting: Watches. Watches have been considered a status symbol since, back in 16th century Europe. Due to their rarity, in many western countries, they were only owned by those who had money and status. And that tradition still continues in many places today. In some traditional workplaces, the price of a watch represents where you stand in your workplace hierarchy. That may be starting to go away, as smartwatches become more ubiquitous, but when it comes to timepieces, we’d definitely double check what the person you have in mind is already wearing on their wrist before gifting a new watch. 

Offering Hope and Condolences

If you’re looking to gift a recipient who has recently experienced a loss, there are a variety of ways you can symbolically offer hope and condolences.

From different religions like Judaism and Christianity, and even dating back to Ancient Rome, candles have been used to symbolize hope in dark places. And candles have been used not just as a symbol of hope, but also in memorial of those who have passed away in events such as candlelit vigils, symbolizing life after death as well. By offering a candle to your recipient, you’re implicitly offering hope and condolences to them as well, based on a long tradition that has been part of countless religions, media, and cultures. 

Another way to symbolically offer hope is with certain types of flowers. Funeral flowers have a variety of meanings. Chrysanthemums are a popular choice, as they’re used to symbolize grief. Peace lilies are thought to represent peace and purity after death, and are especially popular for religious ceremonies. When deciding between different types of flowers, it’s also important to keep color in mind, as each color has its own significance. A dark red rose symbolizes grief, but a bright red one symbolizes true love and desire... which is not exactly a professional statement! 

A concept near and dear to our team at ThankYouKindly is kintsugi, also known a kintsukuroi, translated from the original Japanese to mean golden joinery or golden repair. Treating brokenness as part of a story made more beautiful because of, not in spite of it, it's a concept we honor in bereavement gifts we deliver by incorporating pottery made in this tradition.

We hope these ideas help guide you as you’re deciding what to give your recipients. If you’re looking for more ideas, we can help! At ThankYouKindly, we’re passionate about finding perfect, bespoke gifts on your behalf and we love to incorporate symbolism to ensure each and every gift we deliver tells a one-of-a-kind story.