By Dimitris Xygalatas
Whether it’s the dread of a trip to an overcrowded shopping mall, the challenge of picking out the right gifts, the frustration over delivery delays or the hit to the wallet, shopping for holiday gifts can be stressful.
What’s the point of it all? Shouldn’t the holiday season simply be about family, friends and food? And wouldn’t everyone just be better off spending their own money on things they know they want?
Gift exchanges may seem wasteful and impractical. But as social scientific research reveals, the costs and benefits of gift-giving aren’t what they seem.
The Kula ring
During his fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski documented an elaborate tradition practiced by the Massim people. These island communities maintained a complex ceremonial exchange system that revolved around the gifting of shell necklaces and shell armbands. Each gift first passed between individuals and then traveled between islands in a circle that became known as the “Kula ring.”
These artifacts had no practical utility or commercial value. In fact, selling them was strictly forbidden by custom. And since the objects were always on the move, their owners rarely wore them. Nonetheless, the Massim took long journeys to exchange them, risking life and limb as they navigated the treacherous waters of the Pacific Ocean in their wobbly canoes.
This hardly seems like an efficient use of time and resources. But anthropologists realized that the Kula was instrumental in cultivating human connection.
Individually, these gifts were not really free; they came with the expectation of repayment in the future. But on the whole, they served to create a cycle of mutual responsibilities, resulting in a network of reciprocal relationships encompassing the entire community.
The giving effect
Similar exchanges exist in societies around the world. In many parts of Asia, gift-giving is an integral part of corporate culture. Just like for the Massim, those symbolic gifts facilitate business relations.
In much of the Western world, one of the most familiar contexts is the custom of exchanging holiday presents. On occasions such as Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, many families spend considerable time, effort and money on buying presents for their loved ones.
Looking at it through the lens of cold logic, the practice seems wasteful. Everyone has to pay for someone else’s stuff. Some gifts end up going unused or returned. If no one gave presents, everyone might be better off spending their money and time according to their own needs and desires.
However, psychological research suggests otherwise.
Studies show that spending money on others feels better than splurging on ourselves. In fact, neuroscientists have found that making a donation makes the brain’s reward circuitry light up more than receiving a gift. Moreover, the joy of giving a gift lasts longer than the fleeting pleasure of accepting it.
By exchanging presents, we can double-dip, spreading feelings of gratitude all around. Besides, as families and friends know one another’s tastes, preferences and needs, chances are that most people will end up receiving what they wanted in the first place, with the added bonus of bringing everyone closer together.
Weaving webs of connections
Ritualized sharing occurs not only within but also between families. Think of birthday parties, weddings or baby showers. Guests are expected to bring a present, often of significant value. Both they and their hosts often keep track of the value of those presents, and receivers are expected to reciprocate with a gift of similar value when the opportunity presents itself in the future.
This exchange serves multiple functions. For the hosts, it provides material support, often during challenging transitional periods such as starting a new family. And for guests, it is like investing money into a fund, to be used when their time comes to become hosts. Moreover, the gifts help raise the symbolic status of the givers along with that of the receiver, who is in position to organize a lavish ceremony partly or wholly funded by the guests. Most importantly, these exchanges help build a network of ritual bonds between families.
Similar practices even extend to politics: When diplomats or leaders visit a foreign country, it is customary to exchange presents. French officials often hand out bottles of wine, while Italian leaders are known to give fashionable ties.
Other diplomatic gifts may be more unusual. When President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, Chairman Mao Zedong sent two giant pandas, named Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. The U.S. government reciprocated by sending two oxen to China.
From the shells exchanged by Pacific islanders to the toys and sweaters placed under Christmas trees, sharing has always been at the center of many ritual traditions. This is fundamentally different from other forms of material exchange, like trade or barter.
For the Massim, exchanging a shell necklace for a shell armband is not the same as trading yam for fish, just as giving a birthday present is not the same as handing a cashier money to purchase groceries.
This speaks to a more general rule of ceremonial actions: they are not what they appear to be. Unlike ordinary behaviors, ritual actions are nonutilitarian. It is this very lack of obvious utility that makes them special.
Dimitris Xygalatas is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Psychological Sciences at the University of Connecticut.
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I think we need to get back to exchanging shells.
Ray W. says
As I first read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I became and still am intrigued by the custom Tolkien ascribed to his hobbits of giving gifts on one’s birthday to all party attendees. That way, more invitees would attend one’s birthday party. On my fortieth birthday, I cooked for 40 friends at my father’s home. On my 50th birthday, I cooked for 50 friends at my home. On my 60th birthday, just over 70 friends attended the function at a local Elks Lodge. It helps that I cooked in restaurants for about 20 years and have volunteered for many years in the kitchen at the Elks Lodge and for nearly 20 years at the annual Greek festival, making the prep work and actual cooking on my birthday so much easier to accomplish.
I have to compliment the many Greek men and women who put in significant amounts of time and effort to put on their successful event every year. Given the theme of the article, a couple of funny social customs are probably worth sharing with FlaglerLive readers. Many of the older Greek men, some in their late 80’s now, compete for bragging rights by seeing who can show up the earliest each day. When my shift begins just before 4:00 pm, the older Greek man who won the competition that day makes it a point to explain to each evening crew member that he has been there since 5:45 am, or whenever he arrived before all the other older Greek men. He will stay to help throughout the evening, but it is more for socializing in the evening as the younger Greek men handle the evening shift. He will then try to get there first the next morning for more bragging rights. Another social custom occurs throughout each evening, as each of the younger Greek men who still have children young enough to participate in the traditional dances keeps track of the schedule and announces that he has to leave the kitchen to watch his children dance, no matter how busy it is in the kitchen. They never miss a chance to watch their children dance.