During December, the Gifting Moon, we turn our minds to the act of gifting. We give gifts for so many reasons—out of simple gratitude and love for the presence of someone, as special thanks for some deed or thing, to celebrate milestones such as birthdays and anniversaries, as an act of remembrance, to share resources, to recognize someone’s need, to honour people’s contribution, to convey belonging, and especially as part of cultural observances.
In my cultural and religious heritage, Christmas has been considered the major observance, since the time my ancestors were Christianized. In northern Europe, gifting occurred on St. Nicholas Day, traditionally celebrated on December 6th as a feast day. As the protector of children and bestower of gifts, children left their cleaned shoes in front of their door in the hope that St. Nicholas, or in Dutch, Sinter Klaus, might fill them with nuts, fruits, chocolate, and sweets. By the Middle Ages, this day was well established as a celebration of children in which they received gifts. Over time, St. Nick became a patron saint in many European countries.
In the 4th century, the Roman Catholic Church adopted December 25th as the date for celebrating the birth of Jesus. It was Martin Luther in the 1500s who attempted to sever the connection between St. Nicholas and the gift-giving celebration to children, not wishing to glorify saints as intermediaries that stood between people and God. So, in Protestantism, Christmas became known as the time when baby Jesus brought the gifts for children, a practice that expanded. In various Germanic countries, Christkindl markets emerged, the oldest dating back nearly 400 years.
When my pioneer grandparents came to Canada in the early 1900s, they were unable to buy gifts for 8 children every year. So, my aunties tell me the boys and girls had to rotate the years for receiving gifts. The gifts were modest, as my grandparents also supported European relatives displaced by the World Wars. Extended family remember fondly being bundled up in robes and blankets in the horse-drawn sleigh with hot rocks to keep their feet warm, listening to the jingling of the sleigh bells on the way to church, much like the Victorian images, but more modest. There they received treats sparingly…oranges and nuts (imported!) and candy. Among adults, kind acts and assistance were the primary gifts that these communities exchanged. Their monetary gifts were largely given to the church, for the collective welfare of their spiritual community. Though a nickel at a time, it was generous in a largely non-monied subsistence economy. Their abundance was each other!
Over my lifetime, Christmas has been increasingly monopolized by the consumer society, aided by the growth of a monied economy, and abetted by advertising, especially after WWII. Santa Claus was transported to North America in the 19th century, eventually lifted out of a religious context. The now traditional image of Santa was immortalized by Coca Cola in the 1930s through the help of an advertising artist. When I travelled around the world a few decades back, we found Santa throughout Southeast Asia and far beyond, part of economic colonialism.
These days we are embedded in an advertising and consumer barrage that is hard to escape. We feel the compulsion to gift everyone we know in some way, not just children, compounding the throw-away society and often unneeded stuff. Furthermore, we catch the virus of consumer anxiety, convincing us that our reality is scarcity…feeding our endless wanting. We stand in long lines to get the best deal (even trampling others) or we hoard or we spend ourselves into debt. I know the refrain… “if I just get this…then I will be happy”. Then we complain about all the errands to fix stuff and work to clean stuff.
When my children were young, I fought against this consumer intensification by working with them to handmake gifts and cards, which we continue. As part of voluntary simplicity, I taught them to choose something to give, in relation to what they receive. Over the years, we gave non-material gifts, such as help with needed tasks. We gifted food preserves and other edibles we had grown and processed ourselves. We gave living plants, our own paintings or drawings or pottery, wrote poetry, or gave something of ours that we still love. We supported non-profits whose work we valued. We supported global artisans struggling to make a living, in part by starting a “Just Christmas” market over 30 years ago, now called the “Just One World” fair trade market. We have supported local artisans, writers, and artists, especially in this pandemic year, or have given items to foster creativity and craftmaking.
There are many other responses to gifting too: those who try to avoid the trap by not gifting outside their immediate family; some who say they choose not to “waste” money on gifts, period; others who just want to buy what they want for themselves; some who only give gifts when they see something meaningful rather than feeling obliged at a particular time; or giving only on one annual occasion. Others use gifting to maximize people’s feelings for them, enhance reputation or influence, or put others in debt to them, all instrumentalist approaches. Then, there is the reverse, when we feel we deserve a gift, but are not receiving one.
What is Gifting For?
So, recently, I have been asking, what is gifting for? When we give a gift, at its root, it is an extension of ourselves and so an emotional quality or spiritual quality accompanies the gift. The highest form of giving, say spiritual leaders, is not expecting anything back…where one is not known as the giver or credited for the gift. In this way, the giving has been offered from a place of humility rather than ego. However, Charles Eisenstein argues in Sacred Economics that this is not the more important kind of gift-giving.
Across cultures, gifting has always been key to building relationality and strong communities! When one gives a gift, a relationship is established, not a debt. It is inviting someone into relationship with you. It is thinking about what might be meaningful, touching someone’s heart.
The other half of this relation is receiving gifts well. Many of us prefer to give rather than receive, part of a cultural axiom. Yet, receiving gracefully is equal to giving well, and completes the relation. We have lost this simplicity of purpose in all the consumer noise.
There are times when someone has been thoughtful, and we do not have a gift to offer in return. Yet, those who understand gifting in the old way or for cultures that still operate in the old gift economy, gifting is understood as a circularity. The giver knows that the receiver will, of course, be giving to someone else and so on. And just as nature abhors a vacuum, when you give, something will eventually migrate back to you to fill that vacuum. This is part of the mystery and beautiful synchronicity of the universe, based on trust, manifested through gifting. Instead of conspicuous consumption, what might conspicuous sharing look like?[i] As Eisenstein proposes, how might we create a gifting economy?
Here in the Pacific Northwest of Canada, is the home of the old potlatch cultures. Nuu-chah-nulth scholar Richard Atleo in his book Tsawalk, explains that pachitle means “to give”. Many Indigenous groups here, and elsewhere, have ritualized gift-giving exchanges that use a reverse logic of Western ideas. For a range of reasons, elaborate ceremonial feasts are held in the Big House where the host gives away almost all they “own” or have accumulated. The more you give away, the more you are considered wealthy and powerful. The colonizers were repelled by the idea of giving away most of what you have, given their view of poverty as shameful. So, they attempted to extinguish this practice by outlawing it. They were not successful as this is a key element in such gift-giving economies.
To maintain a gift-giving economy, all their origin stories convey how the generosity of giving, sharing, and being kind is part of their identity. In fact, Atleo says, if you do not ask for help, you are not being kind! Unkindness is not giving someone the chance to help. So, asking for help and giving help are part of the same gifting relation. This logic is foreign to Westerners, who work so hard to ensure they are self-sufficient and not reliant on anyone. In gift logic, the gift giver is never bereft of their basic needs, as their giving has strengthened all the community bonds. In return for generosity, you would be honored by the daily sharing of others and through other gifting feasts, replenishing your stores. Sometimes, a cherished something might find its way back to you, as part of the circle of gift-giving. You can never meet all your own needs, spiritually, economically, physically, and socially, but the community can.
The basic assumption of the potlatch cultures is that the world is one of abundance not scarcity. It is our Western belief in scarcity that sends us running into stores and vulnerable to advertising, to make sure we “have what our household needs” and look like “we are “doing well” and have "good taste". In Pacific Northwest cultures, gifting is the social glue of the community, strengthening bonds and mutual obligation. Mutual obligation is what makes a strong community! Gifting creates mutual obligation.
As Atleo explains, each gift affirms a relation and thus is a mirror of reality, which is a web of relations. The term tsawalk means “everything is one” … and therefore each given and received gift reflects the “natural unity of existence”. Gifting mirrors the relationality at the heart of the universe, as quantum science has found. Giving and receiving restores balance.
Moreover, we give, because we experience immense gifts each day – oxygen from the trees, light and warmth from the sun, fresh water from the rain that runs in streams and rivers, and daily sustenance from the soil, food and medicine plants. What can you give today and each day, in recognition of the Great Mystery behind the elements that give you the opportunity to get up one more day and live?
[i] Clark & Rockefeller, Dec. 10, 2020, “An Economy Built on Sharing” in Yes! Magazine.