I had to take an introductory anthropology class for my major in college. The only thing I remember from that class ten years later is Bronisław Malinowski. A hundred years ago, this guy went to Papua New Guinea to study the trade habits of people living in the Trobriand Islands. He wanted to know why these people were traveling sometimes treacherously long distances to give each other beautiful pieces of jewelry that he referred to, pretty pejoratively, as worthless trinkets.1 Malinowski asserted that these people based their social hierarchy on gift exchange and called it a gift economy. Giving and receiving these gifts elevated and maintained social status, and it relied on reciprocity. No altruism here, no free gift. If you received, you were obligated to give. But worse, if you gave, you expected to receive in return, and sooner rather than later.
There are three days until Christmas. Whether you have already gotten all of your holiday shopping done or not, Christmas is a gift economy only if you let it. You want to express love for your friends and family. I get that. I want to do that, too, because that’s the whole point, right? People everywhere have holidays during the winter full of gifts and feasts because it’s the coldest time of the year and we’re trying desperately to fill our bellies and hearts with warmth. But when we shift the emphasis from the warmth to the gifts, things get dicey and we fall into the realm of Malinowski’s gift economy, where status and hierarchy supplant love. And, you know, it can get fucking expensive. No one should feel obligated to spend two months’ salary to express love. We should and can survive the holidays without depleting our bank accounts. Here’s how you can try.
1. Release Reciprocity
Whether or not you make enough money to buy all of your friends and family extravagant gifts, let go of reciprocity. No more guilt, no more obligation. Stop thinking that you owe everyone something amazing. And stop thinking that you are owed something amazing. No one owes anyone anything during the holidays, except love. Every claymation film from the 1960s will tell you that. Not gifts. So just let go. Try right now. Go ahead. Close your eyes. Breathe in. Breathe out. Let it go.
Did it work?
Not entirely… I get it. Reciprocity is a hard drug to shake.
Try again! Did it work?
No? Let’s pretend you did.
You did it! Yay! Gift giving is now a no-obligation, no-expectation act of love. What kinds of gifts can we give now?
2. The Pen is Mightier
I’m going to tell you a secret. It is a truth you may not want to believe, but I’ll say it anyway. You don’t have to give everyone you love a gift.
There, I said it! It’s out there. By gift, I’m talking about shit, stuff and things. You don’t have to buy everyone you love things. I give gifts to like 10 people right now, and I am directly related to 8 of them. This was a hard thing for me to do because I love buying things. And, it’s not that I don’t love everyone else in my life. I do. I love my friends. But, I don’t give them things. Instead, I have come to embrace the holiday card. But like, really fucking embrace it.
Here’s what I do:
Step 1. Acquire cards. Make them online, buy them new, or buy them mostly new at a thrift store. The cards can be silly or sweet. They can be whatever. They aren’t really the important part. They are merely the vehicle.
Step 2. Buy some holiday stamps to make it festive. They’re the same price as regular stamps. Go to the post office. Maybe be nice and smile to the lady at the counter. Ask how her day is going.
And then, here’s the important part:
Step 3. Write personal notes to everyone you want to send a gift to, to all of the people in the world you love and are thankful for. Fill your cards with that love. Make them meaningful. Take your time. Spread card writing out over a couple weeks if you can. Don’t rush. The words you write are the gifts. They’re word gifts. Yes, I just typed word gifts. Yes, I regret typing word gifts. No. Fuck that. I take that back. Who gives a fuck if it’s corny or stupid sounding. They are word gifts. Write some love-filled, motherfucking word gifts.
Now, for those people in your life that you do want to give things to, I want to suggest two ways of approaching gift giving that might save you a little money, which brings us to…
3. Sew it, Knit it, Bake it, Make it.
You are a talented, skilled, smart person. Use those skills! Knit a scarf, or a hat. Bake cookies, or brownies. Make peanut brittle or caramels. You can make single serving Hot Toddies or Whiskey Hot Cocoas in mason jars. You can make a blanket out of old tee-shirts. Or a quilt, you can make a goddamn quit! You can make coupons for massages or dinners or whatever the fuck you want. Have an excuse to experiment in the kitchen or the craft room. You might surprise yourself with how capable you really are.
4. One Man’s Trash
I buy a lot of things used. There are some things that I don’t buy used, underwear being a primary example, but thrift stores are treasure troves and for a fraction of the price you’d spend anywhere else. If you know people’s sizes and tastes, which you should if you’re buying them a gift anywhere, spend a couple hours perusing a Goodwill. If you’re like me, presents will just pop out at you. You’ll see a scarf and a friend’s face will appear in your head, or you’ll see a book you know your father will absolutely consume. If you make it a quest to find the perfect present, you may find some treasures without having to spend a lot of cash on them.
Just remember. Whatever you give, they’ll love it. And if they don’t, they are a bunch of assholes and they probably don’t deserve anything besides coal and a big fuck you.
1. Malinowski, Bronisław. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An account of native enterprise and adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. (G. Routledge & Sons: London, 1922)