Friday, December 26, 2008

The Vagaries of Gift Exchange.

Getting presents as an adult is often a strange and complex affair. In fact, whenever I think about it with any sort of focused energy, the entire idea of gift exchange is a bit confounding. In the United States, we tend to commodify* everything, translating it into a value expressed in terms of the dollar. When considering what types of presents we will be handing out during the holiday, many of us figure out a budget that accounts for how much we can afford to spend. M. and I work out basic parameters ahead of time so that neither of us feel guilty about any exchange inequity. Perhaps its odd that we take such a pragmatic approach to the tradition. It certainly makes rational sense, but what else does it suggest?

From the very basic background in anthropology that I acquired at university, I'm aware that cultures have been participating in gift-giving for thousands of years. The quality and spirit of such transactions differ widely. Among members of indigenous American tribes, it was expected that high-ranking members of each neighboring group would preside over ceremonies during which gifts were offered. This interaction was highly-structured, and the choices that were made often affected the future relations between the tribes. There was such subtlety of interpretation that a wide spectrum of messages, ranging from honor to insult with everything in between, could be conveyed in a ritualized fashion.

Although it's often not as conscious for us as it was for the Native Americans, we still follow implicit rules when we engage in gift exchange. Sometimes the rules are spelled out explicitly. For example, my in-laws decided years ago that it made sense to have a pool of gifts, rather than for everyone to buy separately for each member of the extended family. On its surface, this appears to be an almost entirely economic choice. At the same time, it relieves a bit of pressure from harried individuals trying to prepare for the holiday experience. One need not put quite as much thought into finding appropriate material gestures for people you don't see all that often. And that can be a relief.

On the other hand, the nature of a general exchange presents its own difficulties. How do you determine who gets what? Everything goes in a big pile, and divvied up according to one method or another. In M.'s family, an additional wrinkle has been added. Along with a "real" gift (purchased for an amount agreed upon beforehand), each participant is expected to find a "gag" gift as well. Everyone brings one of each, without in any way tipping his/her hand, and identifying which is which. Then lots are drawn and distribution begins randomly. That would be fairly straightforward, but another twist is yet added. Another round of numbers are drawn, and people can choose to take desired objects away from others, leaving them with unwanted items in exchange.

At that point, the "gift exchange" becomes something altogether different. It is now a contest to see who can go home with the "best" items. Obviously tastes vary among the players, and therefore the more idiosyncratic folks have the best chance of going home with whatever thing they covet. Mercifully, there is a stipulation that everybody gets to take possession of one "real" gift. However, subjectivity naturally plays a big role in determining what that means. In the processes of exchange and appropriation, personalities reveal themselves. It's at that point that the essence of the season tends to get either distorted, or emphasized, depending upon your personal frame-of-reference.

* It's a bit ironic that the Blogger spell-check doesn't recognize this word.

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