We have a whole set of taboos around gift giving in the West. You would never ask what a gift you’ve received cost the person giving it, and refusing a gift is unthinkable outside of very precise circumstances like those of conflict of interest or laws prohibiting gift giving to certain people (politicians for example). Nor would the person giving a gift ever express any expectation of receiving one in return. Nonetheless we all estimate what a gift might have cost and usually try to give an equivalent back.
Equivalence is very important for those who share a similar status, ie not parents and children but cousins, lovers, friends for example, and is clearly expressed at Christmas with the practise of Secret Santa giving; budgets are set to avoid anyone spending too much or too little. One person spending much more or less than the other, regardless of what they might be able to afford, creates feelings of discomfort and even bad feeling, perhaps even more so if you receive what you consider an over generous gift. Why?
Because we feel indebted. It might seem like we’re just giving things away but we’re not. We all expect something back and if someone gives you a very expensive present the obligation to reciprocate is unspoken but most definitely there.
Marcel Mauss wrote a very famous essay, The Gift , which blew apart the idea of a ‘pure gift’. He referenced the North American potlatch amongst other examples of ritualised gift giving. He said that we shouldn’t feel bad that gifts aren’t devoid of any ties of reciprocation and that there is no such thing as a ‘pure gift’ but be glad for the feeling of indebtedness it brings as this makes for long lasting bonds and a wider connectedness. Expressed in religion, a sacrifice is made to the Gods or God in order to receive something in return. The cycle of offerings and or sacrifices in return for protection or good fortune create a long lasting system. Giving gifts at Christmas creates connections between us all and the feelings of indebtedness prolong our relationships (as long we we reciprocate!).
Do we give our children gifts just because we love them? Of course not! We do it to appear normal to our peers and theirs. We do it to express our values to them (science kits vs dolls vs home made offerings etc). We do it to create connections between us which means they have to come and visit us when we’re old. And we do it because we love them.
So Merry Christmas and if anyone wants to give me a gift I’ll be happy to reciprocate!