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Unveiling ancient tradition of gift-giving: Anthropological insight on generosity behind our spending

Unveiling ancient tradition of gift-giving: Anthropological insight on generosity behind our spending Illustrative photo (Photo: Freepik)
Author: Daria Shekina

Gifts are an essential part of Christmas and New Year. We place gifts under the tree, give them to each other, to colleagues, relatives, children, and friends. The tradition of giving gifts is not only very ancient but also a crucial component of human life.

An article from The Conversation, explains why people give gifts to each other.

What do gifts evoke in a person?

Psychologists assert that gifts evoke a warm glow, an inner pleasure associated with giving gifts. Theologians note that in Catholicism, Buddhism, and Islam, gift-giving is a means of expressing moral values such as love, kindness, and gratitude.

Moreover, philosophers from Seneca to Friedrich Nietzsche regarded giving as the highest form of selflessness.

Notably, gifts play a central role in Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and other celebrations. Hence, the Black Friday season is announced at the end of the year.

However, the most convincing explanation for why people give gifts was articulated by French anthropologist Marcel Mauss in 1925.

Mauss, like many anthropologists, was concerned with societies where gifts were lavishly exchanged. For instance, on the northwest coast of Canada and the U.S., indigenous peoples conduct potlatch ceremonies. During these multi-day banquets, hosts distribute vast amounts of property.

In 1921, a potlatch was organized by a leader of the Kwakwaka'wakw people in Canada, where community members were gifted 400 bags of flour, blankets, sewing machines, furniture, canoes, motorboats, and even billiard tables.

Moss views potlatch as the ultimate form of gift-giving. He assumes that such behavior is familiar in every human society. We give things even when preserving them for ourselves would make much more economic and evolutionary sense.

What gifts symbolize

The anthropologist noted that gift-giving comprises three distinct yet inseparable actions: giving, receiving, and reciprocating. The first act of giving establishes the virtues of the giver. They express their generosity, kindness, and honor.

The act of receiving, in turn, shows the recipient's readiness for respect. It is the recipient's way of demonstrating their generosity, a willingness to accept what is offered.

The third component of giving gifts is reciprocity, returning in kind what was given initially. Essentially, it is now expected that the person receiving the gift - either explicitly or implicitly - returns the gift to the initial giver.

Then, of course, as soon as the first person receives something back, they have to return another gift to the person who received the initial gift. Thus, gift-giving transforms into an endless cycle of giving and receiving, giving and receiving.

The final step - reciprocity - makes gifts unique. Unlike buying something in a store, where the exchange ends with money for goods, giving gifts builds and maintains relationships. These relations between the gift-giver and the recipient are intertwined with morality.

Gift-giving is an expression of fairness, as each gift typically holds equal or greater value than the one received last. And gifts are a demonstration of respect because they signify a willingness to honor another person.

Thus, gifts unite people. It keeps individuals engaged in an infinite cycle of mutual obligations.

Increasing gift expenditures

The average American holiday shopper spends $975 on gifts. This is the highest sum since 1999, according to Gallup research.

Many gifts, however, end up in waste. In 2019, 4% of all gifts were discarded, amounting to nearly $15 billion. This year, an increase in holiday spending is expected in countries like the UK, Canada, Japan, and others.

Contemporary gift-giving practices may be a source of both reverence and resentment. On the one hand, by giving gifts, you engage in an age-old behavior that makes us human, nurturing and supporting our relationships.

On the other hand, it seems some societies may use the holiday season as an excuse to consume more and more.

Moss's ideas do not contribute to unrestrained consumption. Instead, his explanation of gift-giving suggests that the more meaningful and personal a gift is, the more respect and honor are shown.

A thoughtfully chosen gift is less likely to end up in waste. Vintage, upcycled handmade goods - or personalized experiences like a gourmet tour or hot air balloon ride - may be even more valuable than a mass-produced expensive item shipped from the other side of the world wrapped in plastic.

Quality gifts can reflect your values and more significantly support your relationships.

Earlier, we also talked about what and how to accomplish before the New Year.