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Christmas gifts are about shopping.


Are they?


‘It is not just that the relationship to commodities is now plain to see – commodities are now all there is to see; the world we see is the world of the commodity’ (Debord p29) This essay will look the ritual of giving gifts at Christmas and the relationship these actions have with the nature of goods and exchange in Western capitalist societies. Obviously Christmas is celebrated in a wide range of cultures and societies. However, I will focus upon late capitalist societies with a generally Christian recent history such as the USA and Western Europe.

I will also examine the theories considering exchange, gifts, goods and commodities such as those of Marx, Mauss and the Situationist writers Guy Debord and Raoul Vaniegem who wrote extensively on the nature of the commodity in late Western capitalism.

Christmas in these societies has a multiplicity of meanings. Spiritually, Christmas has become a bricolage of Christian and pre-Christian pagan rituals combined with locally developed traditions and adaptations.

Economically, Christmas is a pivotal point particularly for the retail industry. These two have become thoroughly intertwined as illustrated by the current icon of Father Christmas or Santa Claus. This figure is often described as being based upon the story of the Christian Saint 5

Nicklaus yet the familiar image that dominates Christmas across the globe of the jolly, fat, bearded old man clad in a red fur-trimmed suit is a creation of the Coca-Cola corporation.

The relationship between the spiritual and commercial significance of Christmas produces a palpable tension in the realm of appearances and behaviour. This tension is well documented in popular culture with numerous movies and books being devoted to this subject such as Scrooged or Jingle All the Way. Indeed Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol can be viewed as an early precursor of this genre. Usually, this tension is resolved through a spirit of generosity, which in this context for most of us translates into gift giving at Christmas.

‘Meanwhile, among the people of all industrialised countries, the pleasure of giving clearly marks the frontier between the world of calculation and the world of exuberance, of festivity. This style of giving has nothing to do with the prestige-enhancing giving of the nobility, which was hopelessly circumscribed by the notion of sacrifice.’ (Vaniegem p76)

Yet, as Mauss et al examine, the act of giving may not be necessarily distilled into simple generosity. The gift is a motor within complex forms of exchange that may end up having far more in common with 6

the economic and commercial motivations within the practise of Christmas than of selfless benevolence.

The mechanism of exchange that has dominated society in industrialised western nations over the last two centuries is that of capitalism. Marx (1888 p22-23) describes how economies in these nations developed from feudal and mercantile trade and exchange forms into modern industrial capitalism.

“We see, therefore, how the modern development of the bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange.” (Marx, p23)

One of the developments of capitalism that will have had a major bearing upon any residual forms of gift exchange is the creation of the proletariat. As Marx describes, the proletariat experiences a far greater degree of alienation from the products of their labour than previous social classes.

“Secondly, the product is the property of the capitalist and not that of the labourer…


‌from the instant he steps into the workshop, the use-value of his labour-power, and therefore also its use, which is labour, belongs to the capitalist.� (Marx, p211)

Indeed, as capitalism has become more developed and refined the number of people actually producing an object with use-value beyond that of a component in the factory process has sharply declined.

Therefore, the products of an individual’s labour, are no longer theirs to exchange as they wish. Products need to be purchased with the money earned through the selling of labour-power. Of course, individuals still produce


objects of their outside of their sold labour time, perhaps through a hobby in craft or art.

Yet even here much of these products are themselves purchased in the form of kits or ready-made components1.

It is not just individual production of objects that have been transformed by the emergence of the capitalist system, but the same problems face community production or communal ownership of objects. As many have argued, capitalism has redesigned the human environment. Industrialisation led to urbanisation, where initially at least the factory became the community.

“Urbanism is the modern way of tackling the ongoing need to safeguard class power by ensuring the atomization of workers dangerously massed together by the conditions of urban production… …the general trend toward isolation, which is the essential reality of urbanism, must also embody a controlled reintegration of the workers based on the planned needs of production and consumption. Such an integration into the system must recapture isolated individuals as individuals isolated together. Factories and cultural centres, holiday


Leaving aside Marcel Duchamp’s elevation of the ‘ready made’ as a work of art in itself. 9

camps and housing projects – all are expressly oriented to the goals of a pseudo-community of this kind.” (Debord, p121-122)

It is likely that such engineering not completely obliterated all traces of pre-capitalist community; some have argued that the success of the Russian revolution was owed at least in part to the ease with which Russia’s new proletariat could relate the concept of the soviet to preindustrial models of community.

However, such extra-capitalist forms of communality will be fragmented or increasingly intentionally created (Barclay p114-120). Any form of communal giving or receiving in the manner described by Mauss et al must inevitably be subject to the taint of capitalist modes of exchange.

‘When money appears, the element of exchange in the feudal gift begins to win out. The sacrifice-gift, the potlatch – the game of Exchange or loser-take-all, in which the size of the sacrifice determined the prestige of the giver - obviously had no place in a rationalised trading economy. Forced out of sectors dominated by economic imperatives, it re-emerged in values such as hospitality, friendship and love: refuges doomed to disappear as the dictatorship of quantified


exchange (market value) colonised everyday life and turned this too into a market.’ (Vaniegem p79)

In his study of gift economies Mauss (2002) identifies a number of key themes common to gift economies around the world. These include the following; rivalry between clans, communities, individuals etc, the destruction of objects given and received and the simulation of combat between rival parties. He also examines the honour and prestige that is conferred by the accumulation and distribution of surplus wealth.

Mauss distinguishes three elements of duty that compromise the contract that all parties involved must accept for this form of exchange to function. These are the obligation to give, the obligation to receive and the obligation to reciprocate. Failure to fulfill these obligations would result in the breakdown of the exchange cycle.

Societies using gift economies have developed strict moral and/or spiritual sanctions for such deviant behaviour. Such sanctions are accentuated by the elevation of gift objects above mere commodities. Societies stress the “spirit of the thing given� in addition to the material value of the object.


Most of the elements described by Mauss still have some residual presence amongst the rituals of Christmas gift giving.

The obligations to give, receive and reciprocate remain strong during the modern Christmas holiday. At this time of it is a social norm, and exceptions are a notable rarity. These obligations extend beyond gift exchange amongst family and friends to more extended networks of exchange.

Examples of these might include gift exchange at the workplace and the often highly regulated and ritualised “Christmas card list�. Both of these examples can prove useful in examining the extent to which the gift economy as described by Mauss remains extant or not in western societies.

As described by Debord etc. the workplace has since the industrial revolution become a surrogate for the community lost during urbanisation and an increasingly atomised population. Therefore, the workplace is an important location for rituals such as gift exchange.

However, the ties that bind fellow workers together are different from those that formed relationships in the communities Mauss describes. 12

Membership of a workplace community is increasingly temporary and constantly changing. Identification with a workplace is, because of the antagonistic relationship between capital and workers as described by Marx, often grudging. This kind of relationship may very well weaken the power of social obligations such as those of the Christmas gift exchange. Gift exchange may then occur in a diluted form at many workplaces.

The ritual of the “Secret Santa” is an example of this. Some of the rules of gift exchange remain – participants are obliged to give, and receive a gift.

Yet in many ways the elements common to gift economies have largely disappeared. There is no obligation to reciprocate. In fact, the rules of “Secret Santa” prevent this. Participants do not know the identity of the giver. Each participant only knows the identity of the recipient of their gift.

Similarly, the anonymity of participants effectively prevents any recognition of honour or prestige being attached to objects given. Usually the “Secret Santa” ritual also contains a rule where the financial value of the gifts is capped or limited – often to a small or 13

token amount – denying participants the chance to engage in competitive giving or displays of comparative wealth.

The “Christmas card list” is another illuminating practise during the Christmas period. One example of a Christmas card list I have seen, consists of a card file index dating back for over 15 years listing all cards received and sent, with recipients being removed from the box after 3 consecutive years of failing to reciprocate.

Whilst it is difficult to engage in ostentatious displays of wealth or competition with a simple greetings card(novelty musical examples notwithstanding), it is easy to see the patterns of obligation reproduced, especially in such examples as that above.

There are clear expectations for giving, receiving and reciprocating. Failure to comply with these can lead to the deviant participants removal from the list and thus exile from the practise – at least within that relationship.

The exchange of Christmas cards also performs a valuable social role that is in many ways similar to those of the potlatch and similar festivals. This ritual provides a formalised mechanism for relationships


and ties separated by distance to be renewed on regular basis. News is exchanged and contact maintained for another year.

Aside from these specific examples, it can be seen how many of the elements of exchange from the gift economies have some kind of presence within the exchange of Christmas gifts.

Of the elements from Mauss listed above all can be found to some extent and in some form within the rituals associated with exchange of Christmas gifts. As we have seen, the social obligations to give, receive and reciprocate are present.

These rules are taught to us from an early age and are reinforced through recourse to religious allegory (the gift giving of the “Three Wise Men”) and through the mass media and entertainment industry.

The very environment we live in is redesigned for a period prior to Christmas to engineer an atmosphere of and for Christmas gift giving (and shopping). Popular culture designates deviants from the norm of the gift exchange as “Scrooges” and reminds us all that such failure to participate should not be regarded as socially acceptable.


Having accepted the obligation to participate we can easily see the other elements emerge – although not in as an inescapable manner as the basic obligations. It is common, though not universal, to engage to competitive gift giving.

An example often commented upon is the giving by parents to young children. Whilst the children are unable to reciprocate in a meaningful style, the parents may engage in competition with other parents in the community. Such behaviour easily conflates into an escalating display of disposable wealth (or with the availability of credit, illusory wealth).

Movies such as “Jingle All the Way� attempt to satirise the allegations that toy manufacturers deliberately engineer hype to a create a particularly desirable product and then underproduce these items in order to generate a shortage where demand exceeds supply with the aim of giving this product further value and prestige beyond its retail value. Those parents able to buy such products may then gain additional honour and prestige within the community of competing parents.

Such interpretations of the exchange ritual may not be universal but are certainly widespread enough to be acknowledged within popular culture. 16

As far as the “spirit of the thing given” is concerned, Mauss argues that it is present in Western society, albeit in a diminished form.

“It is possible to extend these observations to our own societies. A considerable part of our morality and our lives themselves are still permeated with this same atmosphere of the gift, where obligation and liberty intermingle. Fortunately, everything is still not wholly categorized in terms of buying and selling. Things still have sentimental as well as venal value, assuming values merely of this kind exist. We possess more than a tradesman morality. There still remain people and classes that keep to the morality of former times, and we almost all observe it, at least at certain times of the year or on certain occasions” (Mauss 2002, p85)

Whilst I will later take issue with some of Mauss`s statement, it is at least partially true. Christmas is a time when we, as a society, make an attempt to place other values upon the act of shopping through the giving gifts (whether this is a serious or successful attempt is another matter).

Although we have no real concepts equivalent to mana or hau in this context, we do invoke in partial way the “spirit of the thing”. When discussing Christmas gifts we are expected to acknowledge more than 17

just the material value of the object, the phrase “it`s the thought that counts” is invoked whenever a gift is received that fails to meet desires in attempt to recognise the act of giving and the and the idea that this has further or deeper significance than the mere exchange of bought commodities.

It is open to debate, however, whether these sentiments represent a genuine echo of the “spirit of the thing” or are becoming platitudes in an age of gift tokens and store returns.

One cannot discuss the significance of the Christmas gift giving ritual to the capitalist economy without also examining the phenomena of the “January Sale”.

Given the importance that we place upon savings made whilst shopping (Fox 2004, p230) the significant reductions in price (compared to the prices during the peak pre-Christmas period) that can be found during the January sales can act as a significant influence over patterns of shopping over the Christmas period - which is usually extended to cover at least the period of the start of the January sales (Fox 2004, p383).


Usually the media focuses our attention on the images of people queuing overnight to be in prime position to grab the best bargains. Yet, with regards to the Christmas gift it is the practise of returning and exchanging or gaining a refund on given gifts that has the most significance. The return of gifts as unwanted has, as a reading of Mauss et al would suggest, traditionally been taboo.

However, in recent years the practise may be becoming more socially acceptable both for the recipient and the giver. Indeed, it is now not uncommon for the giver to enclose the store’s receipt for the purchase of the gift with the gift in order to facilitate the process of return and exchange for the recipient.

The acceptability of such a practise would encourage the suggestion that gift exchange at Christmas in western capitalist societies has increasingly less in common with pre or extra capitalist means of exchange, and is merely a spectacular (in the Situationist sense) form of capitalist consumption.

Such an idea may be underlined by further suggestions from the phenomena of January sales. We have all heard of people who do their Christmas shopping during the January sales, or even of families who postpone their gift giving until the cheaper period during the sales; a 19

process again facilitated by the stores themselves through the encouragement of the purchase of “gift tokens” in lieu of actual goods. A more alienated form of gift giving than gift tokens is difficult to imagine before all meaning in the gesture is lost.

‘The fact is that the meaning of giving has been rooted from our minds, our feelings and our actions. Think of Breton and his friends handing out roses to pretty girls on the Boulevard Poissoniere and immediately arousing the suspicion and hostility of the public’ (Vaniegem p76)

Whilst vestiges of pre-capitalist gift economy style rituals can still be found within our Christmas practises it would be over optimistic to see these traces as anything more than echoes of a disappeared past. Our society has evolved into one where the modern market economy permeates every aspect of daily life. The role of this economy is so central to our lives that it designs, creates and shapes our very environment.

That we can even still hear the echoes of the past is testimony enough to the power of the idea of the gift.



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Vaniegem, Raoul. 1994. ‘The Revolution of Everyday Life’. Seattle, Left Bank.


The Christmas Gift  
The Christmas Gift  

A look at Christmas rituals in consumer capitalist society from an anthropological perspective.