This is not an anti-consumerism blog article. This is a message of acceptance that gift giving/receiving is a massive part of the Christmas cultural experience. What do kids get excited about for Christmas? What produces the most stress and anxiety at the Holidays for adults? For those whose answers are not “being with family”, the answer is always “PRESENTS!!!!!”. Why is it that way? What’s behind the tradition of gift-giving? Why are my kids so focused on gifts and why do I wonder if what I’ve bought is enough?
For humans living in the Northern Hemisphere, December has historically been a natural time to exchange or give gifts to commemorate collective survival of the darkest part of the year. What has become Christmas/Advent was also (and still is) celebrated as the Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, Yule and other “Dark becoming Light” ceremonies or festivals throughout time and globe. These rituals featured animal sacrifices (gifts to “higher beings”) and gift exchanges between individuals and communities. For all of human experience, humans have likely always included gift-exchanges as a part of their rituals and ceremonies to create or strengthen individual, community, family, political, natural and spiritual connections.
At various times in history, December gift-giving was restricted to men exchanging gifts. Children did not become the focus of gift-giving until the mid-1800s when the version of Santa Claus (the right jolly old elf) was unleashed upon the consuming public and has since come to dominate the season. St. Nicholas is a 4th Century Saint, the patron saint of Children, that got lumped into Santa Claus in the 19th Century, for better or worse.
In the past, gift-giving was intended to restore some balance (to mirror the darkness becoming light and the rebirth that Winter promises) to relationships or recognize the power imbalances in a society: men would get gifts for women and children, the rich would provide gifts for the poor, masters for their servants (see origins of Boxing Day). Over time, and with the popularization of Christianity, the natural human instinct of gift-giving at the darkest time of year came to symbolize the Magi bringing gold, myrrh and frankincense to baby Jesus.
For many years, up to and including a large part of the 20th Century, the gift-giving was much less about what was gifted and more about how and why the gift was made. Much more time and effort were put into wrapping and accessorizing (think ribbons, bows, fancy string and homemade wrapping paper) and into the meaning of the gift being given. A good gift was one that came with a story: Why is this gift being made for the receiver? Often, the monetary value of the gift was not a consideration – it was more about how well the giver knew the receiver; how much thought and effort went into the gift. In my view, the gift served to connect the giver and receiver in a meaningful and lasting way.
Contrast that with our gift experiences today. How many of you with kids have been contacted by grandparents or other relatives with the dreaded “What do they want for Christmas?” or worse “What do they want, and can you go get it for them?”. How many of you have watched your kids/grandkids tear open one gift, take one look and go after another until there’s just a pile of paper and stuff (stuff that’s awesome for three days, then forgotten, and out of the house by next Christmas)? How many people spend Family Christmas Exchanges simply swapping gift cards to big box stores or banal, cliched consumer goods? (I have never once espoused a fondness for Pepperidge Farms).
It appears to me that the evolution of gift-giving in December has lost much of its meaningful significance. Gift-giving now appears to be merely a transaction, a ritual of obligation and consumerism. No longer is there a symbology of human perseverance, balance with nature, or relationship among humans being represented by the act of gifting. Little thought, meaning or creativity goes into the giving and hence, no thought, meaning or creativity goes into the receiving. We’re all just spending our resources and passing plastic around without meaning, purpose or connection. Advertising and commercial interests have unsurprisingly usurped human experience. We now need to buy things for people because making something would be cheap or show that we don’t really care about the recipient, because spending money on people is truly the only way to let people know you care. Or if your tree isn’t filled with presents on Christmas morning, you’re a bad parent or worse… financially insecure. It’s not about what or why you’re giving, it’s how much are you giving and how much did you spend. Billions each year spent on meaningless consumerism and social obligation. Who does this benefit? Not any of the humans involved.
This is a weird year. Finances are very tight for a lot of folks and stuff costs a lot. December holidays often bring a lot of stress because of the “how much” expectations on all of us. I also know a lot of parents that feel downright unappreciated, mistreated or like a failure when they see their ungrateful children display wanton entitlement (“But this isn’t the Nintendo Switch I wanted” or “But last year I got 12 presents, I only count 10 this year”). It does not have to be like this, but it will continue if we don’t have the courage to do it better.
What gifts do you want to give this year? Truly want to. Not obligated. Just want. How long is your list? Try something meaningful this year: what is the purpose of the gift you’re making? Why is this connection/relationship important to you? How does your gift symbolize the connection you’re trying to make in this relationship? I encourage you to try this with one relative. Just one. I expect that both giver and receiver will feel more connected for it – which is the historical and social goal in the first place.
This is the second year that I’ve asked my kids to not get me a physical gift. Instead, I asked them to think of an adventure/event/outing that they would love to do with their dad. I ask them to draw a picture or tell a story that captures the adventure, wrap that, and put it under the tree for me. Last year, I had amazing experiences day-hiking at Lion Head in Bruce County, Treetop Trekking in Binbrook and dining on Whoppers at a Burger King in Cambridge. Yes, advertising easily manipulates a 6-year-old, but hey, Whoppers are still tasty).
In the end, gifts are relational, not transactional. If we treat them as obligations/transactions, that’s the way they’ll be experienced. However, when gifts are treated as having a purpose, like connecting the giver/receiver on a relational level, then the gifts are experienced as more meaningful – which is the traditional, organic, social reason for gift giving.
I can’t help but connect gift-giving with inheritances. Are you concerned that whatever inheritances you provide to your family are going to be treated like obligatory Christmas presents? More expected than appreciated or connected to a purpose?
In all the inheritances I’ve been a part of (observed thousands of them, not so much being a recipient), rarely is there an articulated purpose, story or meaning behind why a person leaves what they do. Instead, with no purpose, usually the gifts are treated as found money and end up, well, disappearing. Gifts with no purpose or meaning are not gifts at all. They’re just stuff that may be useful or may be useless, may do good, may do damage. In my observations, what humans are usually looking for is a story, a meaning and a purpose behind what this other human is doing for them. When folks know why somebody cares about them, when they know what their loved-one thought was important, when they know why their loved-one thought they were important – the inheritance becomes a gift, something useful from which to grow and connect.
This year, I encourage you to put a story under the tree for someone you love. That might take the form of a tangible object, but make sure the meaning is articulated. We give gifts because we love life, and we want to connect to others and provide them with a meaningful experience during one of the darkest times of the year. If we can avoid the siren call of transactional human relationships, we can give ourselves a lasting, priceless gift of connection and meaning, which is something that lasts much longer than anything that can be purchased.