By Suzie Gibson
The anxiety attached to gift giving is worth considering.
The Christian commemoration of Christmas is about celebrating God’s ultimate gift, his only son. Such an exceptional gift reaches its destiny in the crucifixion of Jesus: a sacrifice that can never be acquitted. The extraordinary nature of this gift, which ends in death, is resonant of a debt economy.
Capitalism is sustained through a debt economy of profits and arrears that spin endlessly in keeping the many beholden and the few prosperous.
During the festive season, it is clear that the sacred and the secular share an unholy alliance through their generation of a gift economy that leads to indebtedness. If we think of Christ as a gift, the opportunity for reimbursement is slight. Mortals cannot match the divine offering, only revere and give thanks to it.
The secular gift also poses problems, for we are inclined through politeness to return in equal measure the kind of generosity shown to us. This brings to mind Søren Kierkegaard’s insightful claim in Fear and Trembling (1843) that it is far more difficult to receive than to give.
One might wonder then if the true gift exists? That is, a gift which does not make us feel indebted, beholden, or, dare I say, even guilty?
Perhaps a better way of approaching this question is to consider the great work of philanthropic charities – both religious and otherwise – that try to address social and economic inequality.
Certainly spending both one’s time and money with friends and family over the festive season should give us pause to think of those who do not have these things.
Oxfam runs a series of gifts that actually do good for others – find out more here.
Other kinds of altruistic gifts include anonymous donations, as well as the very personal act of organ donation.
These sorts of gifts are certainly worthy of our praise as they fall within the realm of what is virtuous and ethical. But do they succeed in cancelling our sense of indebtedness?
Such humanitarian examples do not address the heightened commercial activity that begins months before December 25 and which reaches its climax in the January sales.
Perhaps the annual January sales give prudent shoppers the opportunity to give to themselves – something which has become a consumer ritual over the years. Does this version of the post-Christmas gift eradicate indebtedness? Certainly the guilt of consumption is assuaged by the notion of acquiring a bargain.
Most people at Christmas…
During the festive season, there is also a conflict and collision between the secular and the sacred. For those more spiritually minded, it is a time for quiet reflection. For others trying to eke out a retail existence it is an important period of debt recovery.