Festive Rituals of the World: Christmas Gifts in Western Cultures


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Every year millions of people worldwide spend huge sums of money on Christmas gifts. Image by cohdra.

In his seminal work ‘The Gift,’ anthropologist Marcel Mauss contends that an object exchanged as a gift has a high social value related to the relationship between the giver and receiver, and to their social status, but not related to the actual worth of the gift itself.

Giving and receiving objects initiates, establishes, and cements relationships between people by building a social network of obligations and expectations.  The essence of this theory is summed up by the expression “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth;” in other words never judge a present by its monetary value, but be mindful and grateful that someoneTHAT  someone– has actually given this as a present. This is crucial advice when it comes to gift exchange at Christmas.

Christmas Gift Exchange

 Christmas is a time when Mauss’ theory is put into practice: Gift exchange is a major feature of the holiday, regardless of the wealth of the giver as relatives and friends exchange gifts of various values.  This custom is supposed to derive from the legend of the three Kings, who travelled from different African countries to honour the newborn Holy Baby with gifts.  The three Kings’ gifts were very valuable at the time, consisting of precious Gold, Incense and Myrrh.  Meanwhile, around the same time, the Romans also exchanged gifts – but presumably adult ones – during the raunchy festival of Saturnalia, where all established rules of social behaviour could be broken and pretty much anything went.

The Anthropology of the Reindeer Jumper

Nowadays, tribes that celebrate this Christmas custom believe in the maxim: “it’s the thought that counts.”  It is the act of giving that has value.  There is a social expectation to exchange gifts with various individuals within their kin, for example the matrilineal head of the spouse’s clan (known as the Mother-in-Law), and to show appreciation for such gifts.

Examples of this custom are clothing garments such as scarves and jumpers decorated with Christmas-inspired effigies: The Reindeer, the Tree, the Snow Man.

Bizarrely-altered everyday objects are also exchanged: Fluffy socks. Rhubarb fudge.  Soap on a rope.  Despite their often low material value and aesthetic quality,  the giver’s expectation is that they will be greatly appreciated.  Gratitude must be displayed to the giver, ideally by wearing / tasting / using the garments immediately in their presence. Failure to do so could cause great offense between the recipient and the entire clan, potentially leading to kinship ruptures. Feuds between spouses and their clans may even disrupt the pattern of marriage exchange and clan alliances.

Feuds of this kind are often initiated at gatherings called “Christmas Parties” and may even involve the offended party intentionally spilling their alcoholic libation on the offender.

What purpose does Santa Claus serve during the holiday festivities? Image by clarita.

Christmas Mythos

Gift exchange in modern Anglo Saxon societies is also linked  to the mythological figure of Santa Claus, who is supposed to bring gifts to all children across the world. This is an outright fabrication but, inexplicably, adults still enjoy disguising themselves as Santa and giving children small gifts.

Commodity Exchange, Money and ‘Sense’

Anthropologists have also identitified another method of trading presents, called commodity exchange.  This type of exchange has a low social value, but it is based on the economic value of the goods being exchanged.  At Christmas time, this is known as Christmas shopping.

Objects, often known by their vernacular name of ‘tat’, are exchanged in shops for their monetary equivalent.  Some anthropologists argue that this monetary amount is largely inflated by the symbolic value of the objects, however.  Timing is also a determinant of value.  The same objects/tat will be considerably cheaper immediately after the central day of the festival, and the price drop itself, called ‘Sales’ is part of the Christmas folklore and custom.

Natives therefore spend vast amounts of money on goods that cost a fraction of their price days later.  Unfortunately this is a theory that has yet to be explained by anthropologists, though some have attempted  to rationalise this social behaviour by drawing an inverse correlation between the amount of consumers’ sense and their available money.  This correlation is also related to excessive consumption, which in turn is a reflection of status. Hence the popular expression in this culture, “They have more money than sense.”  A predicament most of us would like to be in at Christmas…

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