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Gifting Economies

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.