why do we give gifts at christmas
Exchanging stuff Á as gifts or economic transactions Á and reciprocating those exchanges in a socially acceptable way - is a practice found in all human cultures. The rules and scope of the exchanges may be very different, but the fact of them is universal. French anthropologist Marcel Mauss doesnÁt attempt to explain the politics and practice of the office Secret Santa (alas) Á instead, he describes Áarchaic societiesÁ in Melanesia, Polynesia and the north-west coast Native American peoples who practiced ÁpotlatchÁ, a ceremonial gift-giving and feasting ritual characterised by competitive shows of conspicuous giving and consumption. These, Mauss says, are systems of gift-giving that arenÁt just about gifts, but carry legal, economic, spiritual and moral significance that saturates the whole social fabric (he calls them Átotal prestationsÁ). In these societies, items given as gifts take on the spiritual significance of the giver. The value of the relationship is embodied in the thing given. If we can understand the rules and role of gift exchange and reciprocity, he tells us, we can understand the whole culture. Fundamentally, Mauss says, giving gifts is neither voluntary nor altruistic. ThereÁs an obligation to give, an obligation to receive and an obligation to repay. There are rules that determine how this is done correctly Á with whom, when and how are all prescribed. One of those rules is to make it
look voluntary and spontaneous, so the gift is Ágenerously offeredÁ. But actually itÁs a Áformal pretence and social deceptionÁ. WeÁre all complicit, and pretending is part of the rules. If you donÁt give Á and receive Á correctly, you risk losing honour, moral authority and wealth.
Mauss thinks things are a little more complicated in complex, developed societies with liberal, utilitarian market economies that follow very different sets of rules, Certainly we live in a society with multiple, overlapping and conflicting systems of value and exchange, as do the people in the Áarchaic societiesÁ Mauss (sometimes inaccurately) describes. ThereÁs plenty to. But I think in many ways, the basics still stand. MaussÁ ideas explain why gifting faux-pas can be some of the most stressful moments in the holiday season, and fundamentally, why we havenÁt all just given up and decided to do without the bother. Firstly Á gift-giving is moral and there are social consequences if you get it wrong. ItÁs not just the thought that counts, itÁs the social action. So by all means be creative, but if he gives a diamond bracelet, and you give a box of After Eights, they bring a cake and you give it back to them when they leave as a means of ÁreciprocatingÁ, you announce that you decided not to ÁdoÁ presents this year, just after everyone has handed you yours, youÁll pay for it. Not just today, but forever. Secondly, gift-giving Á especially at Á is Áformal pretence and social deceptionÁ. A warm thank you for the sweater youÁll never wear is not just polite, itÁs a mandatory step in the dance of this social exchange. Gift exchanges arenÁt just about individuals, theyÁre about the groups we belong to Á and our actions are understood in that context. Your kids ignore the gift Grandma gave them?
ItÁll reflect on you, the parents. Visitors from overseas witness the exchange? ItÁll reflect on the nation. Naughty or nice? A child dressed as a Christmas elf. Photograph: Craig Holmes/Alamy Thirdly Á for them to really count, shop-bought, mass-produced items must be transformed from impersonal commodity to gift imbued with the spiritual significance of the giver. ThatÁs why cheques and vouchers can fall flat. And thatÁs why wrapping paper matters Á it actively changes the value of the gift. Ultimately gift-giving is a means of affirming and strengthening the moral bonds between us. ItÁs strategic, competitive, and non-voluntary, but still it binds us close and reminds us that weÁre not in this game alone. But if theyÁre neither voluntary nor disinterested, are they really gifts at all? I reckon if you believe in ÁpureÁ gifts at all, then youÁre good at self-deception as well as social deception. Merry Christmas. December 25 wasn't always a day devoted to gift giving. In many different parts of the world, December 25 has become the ultimate gift giving day of the year. Tied to the Christian celebration of Christmas, presents on this day are now a central part of Western culture. Yet, this tradition is actually rather new and wasn t always associated with December 25. Historically the day of Jesus birth wasn t celebrated on December 25 until the 4th or 5th century. There is some possibility that this day corresponds with Jesus actual birth, but most historians believe it occurred at a different time of the year. One reason it was moved to December 25 was a desire to Christianize a Roman festival that occurred during this time.
From December 17 23, Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a feast dedicated to the agricultural god known as Saturn. PDuring these days Romans would give various gifts to each other. Similarly, the Roman New Year on January 1 was an additional day of gift giving in honor of the god Janus. Outside of Rome there existed Celtic traditions of gift giving that revolved around the Winter solstice and various pagans gods. These Roman and Celtic traditions were eventually Christianized and some preserved the custom of gift giving, but now in a Christian context. Additionally, as Germanic countries were Christianized there also grew a devotion to St. Nicholas, whose feast was celebrated on December 6. He was known to leave gifts in shoes or stockings on his feast and this tradition grew in popularity. In other countries January 6 became a primary day for giving presents to each other in honor of the Magi who gave the child Jesus three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then in the 19th and 20th centuries immigrants from these European countries came to the United States. At this time the popular figure of Santa Claus was born, highly influenced by the poemP Twas the Night Before Christmas P and commercial campaigns byPCoca-Cola. As the years passed the various traditions of these immigrants were combined into a new celebration of Christmas that focused on gift giving and the overnight arrival of Santa. While exchanging presents on December 25 is a relatively recent invention, many Christians have embraced it, recalling the gifts of the Magi, but also honoring the greatest gift given to humanity: Jesus Christ.
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