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The gift relationship

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When Santa Claus paraded through Manhattan last Thursday, surrounded by his court of inflated celebrity influencers, it was the ritual signal or starting gun that launched us into a month-long marathon of over-consumption. Black Friday was only the beginning, and in any case Black Friday is not what it used to be because of Internet shopping and online specials.

But we must shop for gifts somehow, on foot or on the keyboard, because there is a deadline. Ebenezer Scrooge is the emblematic figure of the season, not because he was a miser but because he was scared straight just in time, before the shops closed, and began buying gifts like a madman.

Almost every culture in the world has some system of gift exchange. Anything can be a gift: seashells, brides, animals and even intangible things like prayers or blessings. There's the Native American Potlatch ceremony, the Kula ritual in New Guinea, and many more described in a famous study by Marcel Mauss called The Gift, in which he argued that gift giving and receiving is an essential part of all human relationships. But no amount of anthropology helps in the immediate crisis. Who gets what, and how much should it cost? Nothing is more revealing than a gift.

Buying gifts for others is difficult enough, but it is only half the story. There’s no escaping that most difficult of all questions: what do you want for Christmas? Who has a good answer for this? What we really want is a huge, terrifying, existential question, and most of us don’t care to think about it. We can never quite see it clearly, let alone say it in words or get it gift-wrapped from Amazon.

What do I want? Well, I want to be smarter, younger, braver and, not least, taller. These would be great gifts, but they are only shadows of something else that I don’t have a name for. Modern children have no problem with the gift question. They have lists of wants, readymade, downloaded from the web, forwarded to Santa Claus by email and delivered, not down the chimney but in a box on the doorstep. But the older we get the harder it is to know what we really want.

It’s an insoluble problem. If we don’t know what we want ourselves, how can we possibly guess what other people want, even those nearest and dearest to us? Gift cards have become popular, but this simply tosses the smoking bomb into the hands of the recipient, who must then worry about what they want. Charitable gifts are a possible way out, although a bit of a cheat because no wrapping is required.

Some practical people ignore the whole impossible question of who should get what. They save all the gifts they receive in their original packaging, along with a careful note of the giver’s name, and then simply pass them on to someone else the following year. In a recent survey 64% of the respondents admitted that they passed gifts along like this and got away with it. If your flow of incoming gifts more or less matches your flow of outgoing gifts you could achieve a steady state, and never have to choose a gift ever again.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.