Christmas season is always a time of contrasts. The Holy versus the commercial. The pious versus the semi- and non-believers. Bach and Handel’s magnificent liturgical music versus Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. My own Holiday is Chanukah, which fell so early this year that it is already come and gone. I may well be blinded by my awareness of the contradictions about Christmas that I fail to see the similarity with Chanukah. The musical analogy is missing and the commercial aspect is perhaps more muted, although the serious observers offer gifts on every one of the eight days. But the gap between the believers and their opposites is to be found in both bodies of celebrants.
Gift giving is an ancient ritual used to signal reciprocity among members of one’s extended family and community. The French anthropologist, Marcel Mauss, developed an important theory on the importance of “the gift” in his book of the same name. The following few paragraphs are heavily edited extracts from the Mauss entry is Wikipedia.
Mauss argued that gifts in earlier cultures are never “free.” They give rise to reciprocal exchange. Mauss’s work began with his question,”What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?” His answer is that a gift is a social mechanism, imbued with “spiritual mechanisms”, engaging the honor of both giver and receiver. Such transactions transcend the divisions between the spiritual and the material in a way that according to Mauss is almost “magical .” The giver does not merely give an object but also part of himself, for the object is indissolubly tied to the giver: “the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them.” The act of giving creates a social bond with an obligation to reciprocate on the part of the recipient. Mauss distinguished between three obligations: giving – the necessary initial step for the creation and maintenance of social relationships; receiving, for to refuse to receive is to reject the social bond; and reciprocating in order to demonstrate one’s own liberality, honor and wealth.
The identity of the giver is invariably bound up with the object given and causes the gift to have a power which compels the recipient to reciprocate. It is never separated from the giver’s being (inalienable) in the way a bought object becomes the property of the recipient (alienable). Because gifts are inalienable, they must be returned; the act of giving creates a gift-debt that has to be repaid. Gift exchange leads to a mutual interdependence continuing over time between giver and receiver. According to Mauss, a “free” gift that is not returned is a contradiction because it cannot create social ties. Mauss’s argues that solidarity is achieved through the social bonds created by gift exchange.
The most evident of Christmas rituals in the US is the purchasing and giving of gifts. Mobs of buyers jamming the malls on Black Friday is usually the leading feature of that evening’s news. The profits of many retailers and their suppliers depends on sales during the holiday season, which has been extended backwards from Christmas day to Thanksgiving time and shows signs of starting even earlier.
The impoverished rituals of giving compared to Mauss’s stories of earlier times are another sign of the diminished interpersonal ties and lack of solidarity marking our culture today. Mauss and his followers used the word “inalienable” to distinguish the kinds of interchange of goods that retained the spirit of the giver. Contrast this with the way the word is most present in our historical context: The inalienable right to life, liberty, and happiness. But it is not so widely known that “happiness” was substituted for “property” in the verbal voyage from John Locke’s earlier declarations of the rights of man, and the Virginia Declaration that preceded the Nation’s by only a few weeks. But the sense of the word is just the opposite of Mauss’s usage. Property is delineated by ownership only, without regard to its source.
Fast forward to today and it becomes clear why it is so hard to find the spirit of Christmas in any place other than the mug of eggnog that has become the traditional quaff. I googled “Spirit of Christmas” and got little but tales of popular music and commercial endeavors. When I added “true” I got a collection that began to depart from the commercial character of the results of the first search, but not far. The ones that seem most relevant to me have to do with generosity, not of the value of the presents, but of the richness of “one’s loving presence.”
In this sense, one gives of him or herself, with no expectation of return. It might seem that this form of giving is not quite the same as Mauss’s notion of reciprocity, but I believe that it carries the same significance. If I truly give someone a piece of me, I have created a tie that that will last forever. It is almost impossible to return that piece back to me without leaving a bit of it in place. And unless we become separated, and, even under those circumstances, I will get a piece from the recipient in return some time. Thus, as Mauss has told us, strong ties are created, building solidarity among us. This process is the true Christmas spirit, but cannot be found in the diminished exchange of the commodities we now call gifts. Although we return to Dickens’s Tiny Tim at this season, we tend to watch it amidst a flurry of advertisements. Can we, in this era of commercialization and alienation, learn from Scrooge’s transformation that the spirit lurks everywhere, waiting to be freed by the simplest of acts–the giving of gifts.