What is a “gift”?

Ah Christmas and its incredible flood of gifts under the tree! Yet, even if this holiday originally had little to do with material possessions, it has become emblematic of them. Today is an opportunity to revisit the notion of what a gift really is and what it represents in a profound way.

A gift is generally understood to be a selfless giving of ‘something’ by one person to another. It can be an object (the famous children’s toys), money (increasingly popular these days it seems), or a card promising a service or a non-material gift (such as a dinner or a trip). Such gifts are often carefully wrapped in disposable paper, newsprint or kraft paper, or even in pretty, decorated cloth wrappings that can be reused at will. But sometimes they are not wrapped at all.

Today, there are many opportunities to give gifts to each other, but people still prefer to wait for an occasion to make such a gift. Special occasions are birthdays, weddings, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Christmas of course, etc.

© Nina Mercado

The festivals that I study, particularly Burning Man, place a great deal of emphasis on what they call the ‘gift’, which can be translated as both present and donation. In this particular form of subculture, the gift can therefore be a service rendered, such as the repair of a bicycle, a hug, a glass of liquor, a scarf to shelter from sandstorms, or a work of art.

The gift is a very special form of giving. It symbolises attention, a form of affection for someone (whether real or simulated). Some psychology studies would suggest that giving a gift is more rewarding for the brain than receiving it. This would be in line with certain primitive customs and practices in which the recipients are in some way obliged to those who have given them a gift. In this case, one is happy to give, sometimes even to the point of sacrifice. This process is reminiscent of the buying frenzy at the end of the year, which suggests that the more money spent on gifts (the sacrifice), the more successful the holiday. Moreover, this giant exchange of gifts that is Christmas is also accompanied by large festive meals, as well as a deluge of very specific rituals (buying and decorating the tree, decorating the house, turning on the lights, etc.).

It’s tempting to draw parallels between the end-of-year celebrations and the celebrations of the tribes of the First Nations of America who practised the potlatch. This custom consists of distributing more and more gifts, more and more sumptuous, each part trying to give the other more grandiose gifts each time it’s their turn. Indeed, it’s reminiscent of families taking turns hosting year after year, each time trying to show that “their Christmas” is the warmest, with the best meal, the most beautiful decorations, etc. To a lesser extent, this spirit of competition can also be found in Christmas decorating contests, where neighbours compete in ingenuity and extravagance to the point of making their houses totally invisible under the mountains of lights. This is the potlatch spirit at its purest. It’s spent without counting the cost, to offer the most beautiful lights, to impress those who benefit from it, to almost glorify themselves. There is a joy in having the most decorated house for Christmas in certain neighbourhoods, there is a joy in having been the one who gave the most expensive or the most extraordinary gift in most households, just as there is a joy among the chiefs of their First Nations tribes, in being the one who gives the most, even if it means finding oneself ruined afterwards, without anything at all, not even a fur to face the winter.

© Lina Trochez

The final stage of the potlatch is the most fascinating, it’s not systematic, usually one of the two rivals finally admits defeat long before this. But it can happen that the overbidding exchanges are not enough. The ultimate potlatch practitioner is the one who gathers all his possessions, especially the most luxurious, the most beautiful, the most precious, and who gives a big party during which one sings, dances, eats and drinks well, at the expense of the sponsor of course. At the end, all the piled-up wealth is destroyed beyond repair, the metal plates that have taken hours to make are knocked down, the hand-painted dishes from the best craftsmen are thrown on the floor, the gold ornaments and jewellery are twisted, and sometimes, better than all that, the whole thing is simply burnt in a huge bonfire and danced around.

The line between sacrifice and gift is often blurred. In between these two lines there is the possibility that what is offered is only offered to impress the recipients (even if they are gods), or simply to feel a selfish joy. Gift-giving is not simply the act of giving as is so often believed. There is something behind it, there is always something. As for what it is, it’s often difficult to determine unless you are one of the two parties. And yet.

I hope you’ll enjoy your holiday season for other reasons than purely material, unless that’s what you want 😉


Thanks and see you soon!



Citer ce billet
Mélissa Aberkane (2022, 5 décembre). What is a “gift”? Aesthetic Gathering. Consulté le 18 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/oxb3

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