We, humans, love exchanging presents. Even people with limited resources try to provide some gifts for their special ones on important occasions. Naturally, this can lead to some anxiety. How to arrange a nice present to your daughter on her 10th birthday, when you have barely enough money to feed the family? For the more affluent among us gift exchange is often a source of a different kind of stress - what to give to a person who already has "everything"? Hence endless shopping trips and non-stop web browsing in search of the perfect option, which, one hopes, won't be binned or re-gifted next day. No matter - the relentless pressure of the society forces us to be part of the process, whether we like it or not. Old religious traditions have been enlisted by the retail establishments in the relentless fight for more shopping spending. Who nowadays remember, that Christmas used to be a celebration of the ostensible birthday of Jesus Christ? The atheists had nothing to do with Christians forgetting about the theological foundations of the date, consumerism did that for them. Lots of other religious and secular calendar entries have been employed for the same purpose, and new ones invented. Probably one of the most recent ones is the so called Singles' Day - mainly a Chinese phenomenon of massive online and offline shopping on the 11th of November. If we are to believe the Wikipedia, the tradition started just a few decades ago, and already it happens to be the largest retail day of the year globally in terms of turnover. And there isn't even an ancient deity to encourage it along! St Valentine's day, Mothers' day, Fathers' Day and so on and so forth - any excuse to squeeze a few more presents from the general public!
Of course, the whole notion of gift exchange is very ancient. In its basic form we can even observe it in the animal world, where apes would swap some specially tasty food morsels for favours, including sexual. We can be quite sure, that as soon as people developed some notion of ownership, along came the notion of gift exchange as well. Giving a present might smooth social interactions, helps to gain trust and acceptance of otherwise hostile people, facilitate further trade or mutually beneficial cooperation. It can convince your enemies not to attack, although we can see throughout the history that this kind of gift giving isn't the wisest long term strategy. Giving special gifts to your followers might bind them closer to you and in some societies a ritualised exchange of appropriate objects would be of similar standing to our modern contracts. It would be legally binding as well.
For example, among Anglo-Saxons a king would be known as a "giver of rings" to his followers, specifically to his band of warriors. Obviously, this was during the old days of numerous petty kings, ruling over a relatively small territory with a help of a few hundred fighters at best. At this small scale a personal relation with every member of the force was feasible. The ruler would give a new warrior some special tokens of his trust and acceptance, such as a golden ring, or a desirable weapon. The warrior in turn would swear oath of service and obedience and would be expected to fight for his leader to the death. These were simple and harsh times, stakes were high and people were cruel.
Today no one expects their niece to defend them with sword in hand to the last breath, even when the said niece receives the latest and best Barbie for Easter. In modern times, and especially in the developed world most of gift exchange is done because everyone expects presents on certain occasions. Unfortunately, it has its cost, and not just monetary. Aside from the effort of finding the right present, that I already mentioned, there is the whole dimension of driving consumerism further. And consumerism is quite harmful to both psychology and the environment.
The simple truth is that most well-to-do people don't really need all the stuff they own. Evidently, they think they do, otherwise they wouldn't be buying all those things they fill their homes with. For many, however, the endless process of buying buying buying often doesn't seem to deliver a lot of joy and happiness. Many people in developed countries complain of stress, lack of sleep, lack of time, of being unhappy. This is despite the fact, that they live during one of the most materialistically advanced period of human history. And no particular Christmas pressie seems to cheer them up for long enough. After all, they have to work quite hard to pay for all the gift shopping, as well as for the mortgage, the car(s), the 5 star hotel vacation and so on.
What can be done? For starters, people can stop this endless gift arms race! While an occasional and targeted present might still be in order, there is absolutely no reason to start panic-buying every time the calendar flips to a certain date. Spending quality time with the loved one, the friend, the relative is a much better choice, for both parties. Face to face interaction, when possible, or even a nice phone/video chat will go along way to strengthen the bonds and maintain relationships, then yet another box, wrapped in a colourful paper with a silk knot on top. And there will be less rubbish in the landfill a few weeks later, which is definitely a huge boon for the planet!