Why do we exchange gifts during the holiday season?

The tradition of exchanging gifts during the holiday season symbolizes much more than simply the act of giving and receiving. It reflects a cultural and psychological complexity that has intrigued scholars for centuries. This ritual, which can be found in all cultures and societies, was particularly fascinating to Chip Colwell. A professor of Anthropology whose research delves into humanity’s relationship with tools and technologies over three million years.

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Why We Exchange Gifts During the Holiday Season

From psychology to theology to philosophy, each discipline brings a unique view of this phenomenon. Psychologists emphasize the pure pleasure they observe in the act of gift-giving, a glimmer of genuine happiness on both the giver and receiver’s faces. Theologians of various faiths see the exchange of gifts as a reflection of fundamental moral values. We speak of love, charity, gratitude, all of them manifested in the action of giving a gift.

Even philosophers, from Seneca to Nietzsche, have considered the act of giving to demonstrate supreme altruism, and goes beyond economic and social obligations. Not surprisingly, gifts are a central part of Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and other end-of-year holidays. And that some people even consider Black Friday, the sale day during the holiday shopping season, as a holiday in its own right.

Give, receive, and give back.

In the 1920s, Marcel Mauss, a French anthropologist, provided a convincing explanation of this universal practice in his essay “The Gift.” Through his work, Mauss takes us on an anthropological journey, detailing the behavior of societies where the act of gift-giving reaches ostentatious proportions.

As in the potlatch of the indigenous peoples on the northwest coast of North America. These ceremonies not only demonstrated the generosity and status of a host through the distribution of copious goods, but also enhanced the honorable network of reciprocity that held these societies together. This happened in 1921, when a prominent leader of the Kwakwaka’wakw community in Canada donated 400 bags of flour, blankets, sewing machines, furniture, motor boats and even pool tables to his people.

A gift inaugurates a cycle of giving, receiving, and finally giving back. This cycle creates a web of obligations and expectations that reinforce social bonds and perpetuate human interactions. Not only is it limited to the transfer of an object, but a moral dimension is added, since each gift received must correspond to another of equal or even greater value. Thus, a bridge is built between individuals, reflecting mutual respect and maintaining a connection that is continuously being built.

Quality Gifts

The intrusion of consumerism.

However, in the modern era, we are at a crossroads. On the one hand, the tradition of giving underpins our human connections, but on the other, it would seem that some aspects of modern society use this time of year as an excuse to overconsume. Holiday spending statistics reveal astronomical numbers, with forecasts indicating that they will amount to an average of $975 per shopper in the United States during 2023.

This increase in consumption has a dark side: a lot of gifts end up discarded. With estimates of billions of dollars in unwanted gifts, an alarming percentage of which end up in landfills. These data reflect that, despite good wishes, the abundance of goods often outweighs the affectionate intentions that should characterize the act of giving.

In gifts, quality is better than quantity.

In this context, Mauss’s theory prompts us to reconsider our gift-giving practices. It suggests that gifts with greater meaning or personalization not only convey greater respect and honor, but are also less likely to be discarded. Vintage, upcycled, handcrafted gifts, or even personalized experiences like a food tour or hot air balloon flight can have much deeper emotional value than any mass-produced item.

By focusing on quality, rather than quantity, the gift-giving tradition can continue to foster human bonds in a way that reflects our personal values. Even, potentially, collectives towards a more sustainable environment. In short, the present perfect has nothing to do with money.

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