Every October or so, my sister puts all our names in a hat for the Christmas draw. Every adult in the family buys for one other adult. This year, however, events have conspired to derail tradition.
One brother, who’ll be in China with his wife for Christmas, visiting their new grandson, withdrew. When my sister wondered aloud whether to cancel, my other brother, who calls Christmas “the dreaded C-word,” agreed. That left me.
I was surprised by how disappointed I felt. None of us really needs anything, choosing the gift can be challenging, and Christmas, as we all know, has become far too commercial anyway. So why did I care?
I suspect many of us have ambivalent and complicated relationships with gift-giving. My father, always extravagant in everything, deluged us with gifts at Christmas; my mother, who came from a much poorer family, disapproved. My partner and I have repeated this pattern – he likes tons of presents under the tree; I always feel there should be fewer. (We’ve resolved this by agreeing on a per-person spending limit.)
Then there’s the feeling that Christmas has been wrested from us by corporate retailers. It’s hard not to feel manipulated by all those trilling carols, all that shine and glitter. No wonder many people I know either dread Christmas, like my brother, or ignore the whole thing by fleeing the country.
One way to wrest Christmas back is to make gifts, or give ones that aren’t objects – a “coupon” for so many sessions of babysitting a friend’s children, for example. My China-bound brother has always made his, such as the beautiful lectern in pine and cherry that holds my largest dictionary. Such presents, besides bringing pleasure to both giver and receiver, are literally priceless. They don’t fit into the market economy.
As the writer JoAnn Schwartz observes, “The market economy is deliberately impersonal, but the whole purpose of the ‘gift economy’ is to establish and strengthen the relationships between us, to connect us one to the other.”
Many other societies have organized whole economies around gift-giving. Even in First Nation societies, where the ritual of the potlatch involved an expectation of return, the emphasis was still on giving away rather than on acquiring.
Such a “gift economy” was, not surprisingly, baffling to the early Europeans. The First Nations, in turn, were amazed by the Europeans’ notion that, as the writer Lewis Hyde says, “The natural gifts of the world – forests, wildlife, fossil fuels – could be owned, sold in perpetuity and converted into private fortunes.”
In his classic book, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Hyde makes two points that he says are central to gift-giving around the world. First, the gift cannot be hoarded. Such a notion is antithetical to market economies like ours, where wealth is increased by hoarding – otherwise known as “saving.” By contrast, in a gift economy, wealth is lessened by hoarding. As Schwartz says, “It is the circulation of the gifts within the community that leads to increase – increase in connections, increase in relationship strength.”
Hyde’s second point is that one person’s gift must not become another person’s capital. A gift, he says, must always move. The social fabric is undermined when the flow of gift exchange is blocked.
Gifts, in fact, are at the heart of the religious celebration of Christmas. Jesus himself is viewed by Christians as God’s gift to his world, and our own gift-giving mimics that of the three wise men, bringing their offerings to the infant Christ. The element of seasonal gift-giving is also memorialized by the old-fashioned English practice of giving a “Christmas box” to the poor on December 26, St. Stephen’s Day – hence the name Boxing Day. (Canada and other Commonwealth members adopted this holiday, too; it is unknown in the US.)
It’s that giving at the heart of the Christmas season that makes Charles Dickens’ Christmas story so resonant. In my family, we faithfully watched the movie A Christmas Carol – the classic 1951 version with Alastair Sim – every year. We all know the story of Scrooge’s overnight conversion; his name has become synonymous with miserliness. What Scrooge discovers, or perhaps rediscovers, is the joy of giving as opposed to receiving. After his conversion, in fact, he scolds himself for precisely that joy. “I don’t deserve to be so happy,” he says, wiping his eyes after ordering a turkey to be delivered to the Cratchits on Christmas morning.
Why, as we mature, is gift-giving often more pleasurable than receiving? Perhaps it’s partly that we can give, no matter our economic status. But it’s also an echo of the larger world we live in. The things we most value – love, good health – cannot be bought or traded. They are part of the gift economy, and we want to participate by giving back.
A local biologist once told me a wonderful story about animal gift-giving. He stumbled across a weasel’s den, and, because he’d heard about this animal’s gift-giving habit, gave it some food he had in his pocket. He heard a rustling and scurrying inside, and a few moments later the weasel emerged with a piece of old fish-skin in its paw and gave it to the biologist. Even in the animal world, it seems, that desire to give back flourishes.
Bruce Cockburn beautifully expresses that essential act of giving in his song The Gift:
The gift keeps moving
Never know where it’s going to land
You must stand back and let it
Keep on changing hands.
Whitehorse writer Patricia Robertson’s essay, Aiding and Abetting: Izzy and My Political Education, is in the current issue of The New Quarterly (available at Mac’s Fireweed Books). Her column appears on the last Friday of each month.