In a gift economy, what makes a Christmas gift good?

It’s the season for giving gifts - but in a market economy, it’s easy to lose sight of what it means to give a gift. Ben Watkin/Flickr

This time every year we feverishly try to find just the right gift for everyone on our list. Merchants seizing upon the frenzy promise more and more for less and less, seeking to awaken desires we did not even know we had.

The problem with these desires for bargains that will please all parties concerned is that they can take over. A market economy can make us very needy, with all its laws of profit and loss, and calculated exchange.

As such, it stands in marked contrast to a gift economy, in which exchanges are no longer contractual, between two parties and for mutual gain. Instead, the gift economy opens up a circle into which it invites more and more members. Those included find resources in themselves and others that they had not known before.

Lewis Hyde’s classic work on these differing economies, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983), begins with the story of one of the first Puritans in North America, who was delighted to be invited to smoke a peace pipe with the local inhabitants, and then to be given the pipe as a gift.

He proudly displayed the pipe above his mantelpiece, until one day some local guests arrived, smoked the pipe with him and expected to take it away with them. It turned out that this pipe was only a beneficial gift if and when it kept changing hands. In other words, a gift is never one person’s property. If it stops moving, it is consumed, so that there is nothing left to give again.

So, a gift falls outside the scope of consumerism. Hyde recalls the phrase of tribesmen who, when receiving a gift will throw it to the ground and say “here is food we cannot eat”. If one person uses the gift, then it is used up, and is no good to anyone any more – even to the one who eats it. No longer in a circle of constant giving, the consumer is alone and isolated from the possibilities of giving or receiving.

Several other points about gifts help to sort out how their exchange is never only contractual.

Following this analysis, a true gift is one that can’t be demanded: it must be given. This begs some questions about practices of telling members of a certain social group just exactly whom they are buying for, and how much they should spend. On the other hand, it emphasises something rather rich in the anonymous giving that happens when Kris Kringles or Secret Santas are at work. When the point is not how much is spent but the spirit in which the giving is done, the gift becomes quite powerful.

Also, two people may give each other gifts, but when the first is given, the second in return cannot resemble paying off a debt. A respectable amount of time needs to pass between the close of the exchange; and the second gift should not seem tit-for-tat. It may be like the first, but never exactly so.

But most interestingly, I think, is one of Hyde’s underlying points, which is that when a gift is truly given and received, a capacity to give is opened up in the person who has benefited in the first place. This means that the receiver wants to give back, but not only to the one who has in this instance first given.

In a gift economy, gifts keep going around, and one never knows where they will end up. If gifts demand anything, it is freedom. A gift given only out of obligation is not a gift at all; and a gift received ungraciously nullifies for the receiver the inner worth of what is offered.

What would happen if Christmas giving were to step out of the terms of market exchange more often than it does now? Better yet, what if market exchange were to learn something from the ways gifts are given? Would there be fewer homeless people on our streets? Could families afford to buy their own homes? Would the children currently in our detention centres actually have a Christmas to celebrate?

I sometimes wonder what Mary and Joseph did with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – the gifts that started this sometimes manic season. The family soon to be seeking asylum probably never saw their benefactors again; but they certainly gave to others in ways that challenge our imaginations. Frankincense and myrrh have some medicinal properties, which might have been quite useful on the journey.

But the gold? More than likely, that was given to others along the way.

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