Almost every culture in the world has an elaborate system of gift exchange. Anything can be a gift: seashells, brides, animals, and even intangible things like prayers or blessings. There's the Native American Potlatch ceremony, the Kula ritual in New Guinea, and of course, the greatest gift-giving jamboree of all, Christmas, symbolized by the bountiful figure of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of pawnbrokers, a.k.a. Santa Claus, or Father Christmas. Whatever his real name is, he has no grasp of basic economics. He just gives stuff away, which is exactly the kind of free handout program that gives Congressional conservatives hypertension.
There are basically two schools of anthropological thought about the habit of gift-giving. The more traditional view suggests that we give in order to get. Gifts are just a way of putting people under an obligation. I will give you these red feathers if you will take the evil spirit out of my best pig. I will give you this big campaign contribution if you will arrange certain legislative benefits for my corporation. I will give you the toys you want if you will stop whining and behave yourself when grandma comes.
The kinder, gentler theory of gift giving argues that it's not self-interest at all, but a kind of voluntary exchange that keeps society in balance. Gifts are a recognition that we're all connected, we all depend on one another. A gift is a symbol of a relationship. Kindness is a gift. A kiss, or a smile, or even a telephone call can be a gift. Washing the dishes can be a gift. Love is perhaps the ultimate gift. There are a lot of wonderful gifts that money can't buy.It's not necessary to destroy the bank balance, just to give a gift.
But these intangible gifts are not in the stores, nor even in the catalogs that come pouring in at this time of year. The fact is that most people and all children, want something more substantial than a kiss at Christmas. They want stuff.
The problem is, what do they want? How can we possibly guess the desires of others? Does your old aunt really need yet another box of scented soaps from England, or does she secretly hanker after an X-Box? A gift you don’t want is nothing but a storage problem. When I helped my mother clear out her house I found almost every birthday and Christmas gift I’d given her for the past fifty years, carefully packed away in their original boxes.
The only solution to this problem is to forget about the unknown and unknowable desires of others and give gifts to ourselves. This is apparently a growing trend. We always feel generous towards ourselves, and we know our own tastes and preferences. We all want to be spoiled a little with just the right gift, chosen by the person who knows us best.
So here’s a suggestion. You like Public Radio, or you wouldn’t be hearing this. So why not give yourself a gift of the very best news and current affair programs, plus hundreds of hours of the finest classical music? All you have to do is to become a supporter of your local Public Radio station. It’s the proverbial gift that keeps on giving, and you will thank yourself for it all year long.
Copyright: David Bouchier