The Anti-Capitalist Guide to Holiday Gift-Giving

Hypothesis #1: Christmas is the ultimate capitalist holiday. It activates our ever-present urge to consume, lowers our threshold of resistance, gives us the excuse we need to click “buy.” Christmas has brainwashed us to regard retail items as tokens of love. It funnels our personal feelings into the well-worn grooves of corporate profit. As a holiday and former holy day, it has been emptied of all festivity, play, and ritual except that which is market-driven. Or to put it another way, Christmas has become the high holy day of capitalism, not Christianity.

Hypothesis #2: Gift-giving represents one of the oldest ways to resist and subvert capitalism. It rejects the idea of an equal exchange, an object traded for its exact equivalent in money with no emotional residue, in favor of imbalance, surplus, and the messy transferral of meaning. A gift is a generosity that asks nothing in return but creates or accentuates a relationship between giver and receiver. Gift-giving in the form of philanthropy can help heal some of capitalism’s wrongs. Personal gift-giving can help puncture the spectacle of reality created by mass media and return us to the realm of immediacy.

So which is it?

I find it very hard to disentangle one from the other, not least because they aren’t mutually exclusive. Hypothesis #1 describes the purchase and Hypothesis #2 the gift. You could argue that the knot can be cut simply by opting out of Amazon and big box retailers, and choosing locally made, homemade, or heirloom gifts, thus restoring meaning to gift-giving by circumventing the marketplace. But this dodges the paradox in favor of oversimplification. The handmade gift can be inadequate; the retail gift can change a life (prime example: a book. Such as Lewis Hyde’s The Gift).

No, the two meanings of gift-exchange are deeply intertwined. It’s hard to argue that giving something away for free is a radical act when that is exactly the marketing strategy being trumpeted by the latest new media gurus. Yet it’s equally hard to believe that capitalism has co-opted absolutely everything when it is still possible to be moved—whether unsettled or uplifted—by an unanticipated gift, like walking into an art gallery and being offered a gold-wrapped candy from a never-exhausted supply.

I can’t offer you a glossy visual spread of the 25 best items under $25 to give your loved ones. I can’t ventriloquize Marcel Mauss. But I can tell you what I think constitutes a good gift:

  1. It has to hurt. For a gift to be truly meaningful, it has to contain a piece of yourself, and it should be a big deal to give away that piece. At the very least, it should be risky—you should be willing to risk being hurt if your gift does not hit its mark. But perhaps more than that, it should be something slightly bigger or slightly more personal than you can easily part with. That’s when you know you are being generous—if the easier choice would be to keep it.
  1. It has to move. A gift that is successful prompts the recipient to make a gift of her own. Not necessarily to the original giver, and not necessarily in a form that mimics the original gift. But the point of the exercise is that the generosity, the spirit of the gift, the giftiness of it, the thing that wounds the giver, transfers to the recipient, and bestows on her a kind of wealth that, in the best of circumstances, she should feel moved to put back into circulation. Good gifts are like library books that you can never find on the shelf.
  1. It has to be part of a story. You know how, at Christmas and birthdays, the opening of a gift often prompts a wordy gift explanation from the giver? I used to think those sentences were a sign of the gift’s inadequacy. A good gift shouldn’t need a bunch of framing text. But now I know that these words are almost entirely the point. A gift should be the punchline of a story, or the opening sentence, or a perhaps just the perfect ending of a chapter in the middle of a long novel.

Most of the gifts I give this year will not match these criteria, but I’m aiming in that direction: risk, movement, and story.

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