For those of you with Christmas trees, they probably look a little barren following the unwrapping of presents. What did you get for Christmas? And what did you give in return? Gift giving is a large part of the holiday season, but for many the exchange of presents can be a stressful exercise. Some people feel financial pressure to spend elaborately, while others may feel pressured to provide for large networks, and others may be confronted with feelings of inadequacy based on the reception of their gifts or if they are unable to reciprocate. We might set individual rules to manage these stressors—perhaps in your family, only the children get presents, or you host a secret-gift exchange so that you only have to focus on a single individual, or you set a limit on how much can be spent per gift. Gifts are tokens of appreciation, of love and friendship, and of remediation. But gifts are also symbolic representations of power and relationships. All gifts, no matter how small, carry with them a responsibility and an obligation. And while we may try to mitigate those responsibilities and obligations with social codes of our own devising, we can't truly escape them.

The stress of reciprocal gift giving might be most apparent during the holiday season, but it's present at any exchange. Birthdays, where we are celebrated and are the sole recipient of gifts, are returned throughout the year when we celebrate others. A luncheon or a drink or a dinner outing where we are treated is usually repaid in some way at a later time. Sociologist Marcel Mauss proposed that though gifts are supposed to be given freely and willingly, they come with the obligation to give and an obligation to receive. Our social collective imposes the obligation to give. In The Gift, Mauss says

in the economic and legal systems that have preceded our own, one hardly ever finds a simple exchange of goods, wealth, and products in transactions concluded by individuals. First, it is not individuals but collectivities that impose obligations of exchange and contract upon one another … Moreover, what they exchange is not solely property and wealth, movable and immovable goods, and things economically useful, they also exchange services, such as military service and acts of politeness, such as banquets, rituals, festivals, dances, etc. (2000: 5).

Gifts should be offered; they become obligatory because they help create and maintain relationships, and as a result gift giving establishes a hierarchy of giver and receiver. This is most clearly seen in the obligation to receive. Mauss tells us that to refuse to receive is akin to sharing that you're afraid of being unable to reciprocate. And underlying this concern is a fear that the gift you return might be inadequate and cause you to lose status. According to Mauss, honor and credit are never far removed from issues of exchange. There is an element of respect and reputation tied to gift giving. And these are the points that make exchange a powerful medium for building and maintaining relationships.

How does this work in our own circles? Let's say you're headed to a family member's home for dinner. Did you bring something? A bottle of wine or a dessert? You most likely brought something. You may have been told it's a sign of good manners, but you're also doing this to offset the costs (social and otherwise) to your host. There's an expense involved for that dinner—and conceptually, there's also status in being able to host that dinner. By attending, you place yourself in your host's debt. Your offering shows that you acknowledge your host's efforts and indicates your willingness to reciprocate, and a desire to offset some of the debt incurred by your attendance.

At Christmas where there's a larger one-to-one ratio of exchange that's already occurring, the status of the individual may be confirmed by the perceived quality of the gift relative to the giver. We don't necessarily want to admit that we're making this sort of assessment, but a gift of drug-store slippers might go over poorly if recipients know you have the means to do differently and no agreement has been established to make that okay. Such a gift may be perceived as thoughtless—an item cannot be given just because a gift is required, it should relate to the recipient or be useful to the recipient for it to be effective. By this same token, handmade gifts from children or from someone with a skill (like knitting) may be more acceptable because these items required personal effort from the provider.

You may find this unusual. A gift, after all, should not carry requirements with it. But gifts are imbued with a hau—a spirit or essence, which works to ensure that reciprocity occurs. The hau's goal is to return the gift to the giver, which strengthens the bonds of the relationship between the giver and the recipient. Gifts contain a part of the giver (the hau), and in accepting a gift, you accept a part of the giver as well. You carry this part with you until you reciprocate the gesture. But as a receiver, you also want to reciprocate. Remember that gifts establish a hierarchy between the giver and the recipient. The recipient wants to reciprocate the gift to remove herself from obligations to the giver—to reestablish herself as equal to the giver.

Gifts create and strengthen relationships; they create balances. These principles have survived and provided the transition towards our own systems of law and economy. Things today have both emotional and monetary value and the unreturned gift damages a person’s standing. We are still obligated to return—and to make the return bigger than what we received. For example, the next round of drinks must be larger and more expensive; similarly, we are obligated to extend an invitation when we receive one.

What sorts of social codes have you devised to manage gift giving?

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Mauss, Marcel.

2000 The Gift. New York: WW Norton & Company, Inc.


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