Magical Transactions: Gift Giving and the Culture of Reciprocity

[quote]                                     For it is in giving that we receive.

                                                        ― St. Francis of Assisi [/quote]

Think gift giving is just mindless consumerism?  Think again.  Let’s take a walk through the social significance of gift culture -- and you may think differently about what you give and receive this year.

Marcel Mauss, in his classic work, The Gift, explores theories on reciprocity and gift exchange.  In a gift economy, he argues, the exchange of gifts fosters mutual interdependence, social bonding, and -- ultimately -- solidarity.  In other words, gift exchange is a “total system” that, at its core, builds human relationships. For Mauss, these transactions are both material and spiritual, which leads him to refer to them as “magical.” Gifts are also a gift of the self, as “the objects are never completely separated from the men [and women] who exchange them.”

This sort of exchange has evolutionary underpinnings.  Chimpanzees and bonobos also practice reciprocal giving, exchanging everything from food to grooming.  And what’s perhaps most interesting is that many of these primate exchanges are calculated, with a focus on the long term. Like humans, primates remember and reward those who demonstrated generosity and helped them in the past.

But gifts aren’t all roses and social bonding.  They can foster a feeling of resentment (if, for instance, one party “out gives” the other) and stress from financial strain.  According to the National Retail Federation the average holiday shopper will spend $749.51 on gifts, décor, greeting cards and more this year (with the vast majority of that spending dedicated to gifts).

Gift giving is a more nuanced social ritual than retailers and advertisers would lead us to believe. While some sort of purchase is often involved, there are many ways of participating in and investing in the gift economy.  Here are some affordable, creative tips to ensure you’re engaged in the ritualized bonding, without the financial burden:

  • Host a holiday party -- with a twist.  Offer guests some creative supplies (construction paper, colored foil, confetti) and ask them to create a decoration and gift it to someone at the party.  Playful creativity is a great way to relieve stress.  Then go around the room and ask everyone to share the best gift they’ve ever received and why.  Part of the magic of gift giving is in the memories it creates.
  • Send handmade, handwritten holiday cards to people in your network.  Make them yourself and save money, plus make each one unique. In a virtual, fast-paced world, the gift of time and thoughtful intentions can be one of the most exclusive, luxurious gifts we can receive.
  • Give a coupon book.  I used to create these for my family as a child, but adults will appreciate them as much or more.  Buy some beautiful paper for the cover and create redeemable coupons for significant others, roommates, friends, or coworkers.  Personalize these activity-centered gifts and let them redeem their coupons for their favorite home-cooked meal, a 30 minute massage, or taking out the trash for a month.

Find more suggestions on how to give and spread love while keeping your priorities straight in this cool, downloadable booklet and checklist put out by the Center for a New American Dream.