A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

Gifting with Abundance

Gifting season is upon us, and it’s joyful to hunt down something you know will delight someone you love. This is best done with the small, independent local sources; the warmth and mutual appreciation exchanged are a priceless gift in themselves. Plus, you just plain find much cooler stuff. 

Whatever you do, don’t do too much reading of the mainstream media in the process. There are all sorts of charmless notions flying around. Gifts Not To Give! (Of course, had I not partaken of your wisdom, I was itching to buy my friends puppies, reptiles, underwear, and cleaning products.) Office Gifting Etiquette! (Thankfully not an issue in my life, but the whole idea that there are some out there deluging the Popular People with gaily wrapped parcels while the rest of the team looks on, shedding silent tears, is unsettling.) Supply Chain Crisis! (It seems to be emerging that this is at least in part an invention of corporations looking to justify higher prices while whining that they MUST raise prices because people are demanding living wages and have too much money. Demanding a living wage is long overdue; as to the second part, corporate spokespersons and I clearly don’t travel in the same circles, but I knew that.)

Such baggage is what happens to the concept of gifting under a late-stage market economy, aka Bloated Capitalism. I’ve celebrated Christmas with a family whose tradition involved a dice game in which “white elephant” gifts were opened and subsequently “stolen” on the next round. I found it exhausting, but I was raised rather differently. 

That family invested both Santa and Jesus with epic magical qualities; belief in both was mandatory for anyone under ten and belief in the latter was mandatory for all. It had the effect, somehow, of externalizing pure-hearted generosity and goodness, freeing the mortals present to “steal” each other’s presents, overdrink, and throw sarcastic asides like indoor lawn darts. I’m not meaning to down them; it was how they were raised.

I will say that I like the way I was raised better. Santa, we were told as soon as we were interested, is a legend representing generosity of spirit. Here’s how we do Santa: let’s wrap up this cool model for one cousin, a puzzle for another, a snuggly scarf for an aunt and a tin of that caramel popcorn Uncle Bud likes. Then we’ll visit, house to house, being our own magic sleigh, sharing hugs along with surprises, seeing everyone’s tree. It was glorious. 

As to the Jesus part of the equation, the message we got was that it was more important to emulate than venerate.

It was an old school experience that, as the nuclear families involved aged out and scattered around, couldn’t be continued in that precise form. But I’m sure I’m far from the only cousin who found herself seeking out Friendsgivings and volunteer opportunities and curious places to visit. (One year I spent Christmas day in the visiting room of a maximum security prison with a friend who’d fallen on hard times, and when anyone gave me side eye I mentioned that the dude everybody was making a fuss over had famously not only been sentenced to death, but had survived it.) 

I still love evening drives through decorated neighborhoods; they remind me a little of those Santa journeys with Dad, but the consumerist Christmas is more than a little bit lacking. That said, I know many people feel the same way and subvert the concept, seeking out inspired surprises for loved ones, sharing community meals, doing their best to be of service.

Ironically, that kind of holiday is much more in the spirit of cultural icons S. Claus and Yeshua than the consumer spending, Black Friday battles and “what’s HOT this year” shenanigans that we’re told are mandatory. Theirs is the spirit of the gift economy, derided by some anthropologists as primitive, in which presents flow freely and no one feels slighted because the joy of giving and that of receiving are inextricably intertwined. 

Anthropologists have given themselves headaches trying to explain away non-market economies. For example, they’ve argued that it’s not altruism to give a gift when you’re expecting one in return, applying a bean counter’s mentality to what’s more accurately viewed as a natural cycle akin to that of water evaporating and raining back down.

The alternative (for want of a better word) souls among us have long known that a gift economy means no one loses; when everyone gets lots of chances to both give and receive, it works out beautifully. 

The Diggers and the Black Panthers famously did a lot of this in the mid-20th century. Their modern-day heirs are all of us who do potlucks and Repair Cafés and keep a sharp eye out for the chance to serve a neighbor, who do just-because presents when they find something someone likes or know what someone needs, and there are a lot of us.

It has a ripple effect on behavior. Here in Kingston I have been delighted by the Buy Nothing Facebook page, and in contrast to the image presented of social media in general, the manners displayed there are so lovely one could weep for joy. Haggling is banned by definition, and general politeness is mandated, but individuals seem to go above and beyond to be gracious and graceful. People I’ve met through Buy Nothing have a glow to them. Recipients choose their gifts from the bounty to suit their needs, givers are rewarded not just by a glow of satisfaction, but by decluttering. Win-win.

Win-win, in fact, is the very definition of the gift economy when you strip off the anthropological noise. If you’re looking to recapture the true spirit of whatever holiday you like to celebrate, or to chase the blues away just any old time, participate in the gift economy—it’s around us when we look—and enjoy the feeling of hope and abundance that comes with every gift like the best wrapping ever.