why do we have presents 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. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. The King will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. Although many people exchange or simply give gifts at Christmas time, most of us aren t really sure why we do so. Is it custom? Certainly. But it did not start with Christians or Jews for that matter. The most ancient cultures display evidence of gift giving. So no one can credit Christians with inventing the act. In our present culture when a birthday is celebrated, the gifts go to the birthday boy or girl. Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Christ, the One sent by God the Father to rescue all of humanity from its worst possible fate life and eternity apart from the one true God, (who has revealed himself in the Bible as Elohim, Jehovah, Yahweh, and) who is the Source of all that is good, right, and beautiful.
This makes Christmas a birthday celebration (and no, it does not matter that historically speaking Jesus was most likely born in the spring celebrating his birth in December is a choice to remember it much like celebrating Communion is an act of remembering his death). So why give gifts to each other instead of giving them to the birthday boy? The answer lies in the scriptures above. While there is much history behind how we arrived at exchanging gifts on Christmas day, the main reason is this: when we do so we are emulating God. God gave the world the most precious gift in the person of Jesus Christ. God The Son laid aside his glory, humbled himself to become a human baby, to be born of a woman into poverty, to live the life of a peasant, to be rejected by the very people he came to save, to die a brutal an agonizing death on a cross, and to rise again in triumph over sin and death. Jesus sole motivation in coming, dying, and rising again, was to reconcile a lost world back to God the Father through himself. We love because God first loved us. We give to each other because God gave us the best gift of all. Christmas is a season of sharing, giving, loving, and helping. Why is that? It is because at Christmas we take the time and make the effort to acknowledge our fellow man in the manner that we should all year long. This is particularly true as it relates to the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the sick, the weak, and the disenfranchised. We give to each other and especially to those who have less, because in doing so we are not only emulating God s generosity, but we are giving to Jesus, the birthday boy. Merry Christmas Family!
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