The (Im)possibility of Gift Giving

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers. Amsterdam. Photo by Lhya Munive.

When I was nine years old, my mother gifted me a beautiful black guitar for Christmas. I had begged her for months to get me a guitar, promising I would learn to play it and I wouldn’t give up halfway like most of the skills I have set out to learn. I meant it until I picked it up for the first time and realised that, contrary to my initial belief, I wasn’t a natural prodigy and it would take me months to acquire this guitar-playing skill. Naturally, I did not actually learn until I was fifteen. This Christmas is the last time I remember genuinely enjoying receiving a gift. As I got older, I began to understand that gifts came attached with certain expectations, unspoken rules about value or specificity, and reciprocity. Giving entails being aware of all important dates where gifts are expected: birthdays, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Father’s and Mother’s Day, amongst others. You need to spend a certain minimal amount of money lest the unlucky person receiving your gift thinks of you as cheap, or someone will tell you a gift isn’t necessary, but they secretly still expect you to bring one. This is why, generally, people prefer receiving gifts–but even that I find mortifying at times. I worry about whether my thank you sounded as genuine as I meant it to be, and I start thinking about what I can do–or gift, aha–this person to repay them.

Gift giving is a weird thing, and it has been so since ancient times. Cavemen gave each other gifts as a way to strengthen social bonds and show their appreciation to others. In Egyptian history, gifts were given as an offering to the gods in exchange for protection, wealth, a favour, or plain old mercy. The Greeks, too, gave us the birthday traditions of cake, candles, and gifts. Back then, it was believed that a person was particularly susceptible to evil spirits on their birthday, so they would receive gifts to ward off such evil. The candles would be blown out while wishing for protection. Gifts, seemingly, truly function as an exchange: an object is given in exchange for gratification, social support, love, protection, or friendship, which is very contradictory to the meaning of a gift itself. The Oxford English Dictionary classifies gifts as “[s]omething, the possession of which is transferred to another without the expectation or receipt of an equivalent”. In theory, that is what we perceive gifts to be: a selfless act to demonstrate love and affection. In practice, this is not always our internal experience; reciprocation is often tied to the act of giving. Marcel Mauss coins this paradox in his book The Gift. He argues that a ‘free’ gift is impossible to give and it’s logical that that’s the case–gifts are socially constrained because they are the base of civilisation. Individuals share their common interests through gifting, which creates social bonds that in turn generate stability within a group of people. There is obligation in reciprocation because the relationships between individuals have to be constantly nurtured for that balance to be maintained. Not giving or rejecting a gift would essentially signify that a person is dismissive of their relationship with you.

There is, however, something to be said about the restrictions that capitalism and commercialisation force upon gift giving. While gathering information from academic sources to use in this article (and by academic sources I mean casually interviewing a massive gift giver), one of my best friends uttered the following brilliant statement: “You can gift someone a rock spontaneously but you can’t gift them a rock on their birthday”. Why is that? Apart from the fact that not every person is nuts enough to enjoy receiving a rock on any given day, she had come to the same conclusion I had arrived at as well: giving presents on those official gift-giving days is generally anything but enjoyable, because they come with preconceived value judgments about what an “acceptable” and “suitable” gift is. It widely differs from the silly, light, and joyful spontaneity that accompanies gifting a loved one something just because it reminds you of them. Instead, an endless river of worry comes floating our way. How do I find an object that perfectly reflects my appreciation for the receiver? How much money do I need to spend? What if I can’t find anything appropriate? I even found a blog post that carefully explains the apparently extensive etiquette of gift giving. We have assigned so many expectations to presents on “important” occasions that we allow the essence of gift giving to slip away. Since the beginning of time, it has been about reciprocation, yes, but it is also about taking a leap of faith and being vulnerable with somebody else when you go up to them and say: “This made me think of you”. It is about nurturing whatever kind of meaningful connection you are lucky to have, or bringing nourishment to something that has just begun to flourish. 

I used to believe that gift giving was a purely materialistic and superfluous activity. I distinctly remember reading about the five love languages when I was around sixteen and flinching at the thought that people actually considered gifts one of them, and quite frankly, feeling like I was above that. This is the most ironic sentence to write when last Christmas (!), someone whom I deeply cherish unexpectedly gifted me a painting that is special to me. It took me right back to that Christmas when I was little, and I felt an innocent and simple kind of joy. It also, thankfully and finally, made me realise the meaning of a gift. I started to notice that explaining the story behind a gift was a way for my grandmother to share with others memories of loved ones who have passed, and to vividly keep remembering them herself. I looked around in my room and realised that the possessions I value the most are not things I got myself, but things that were given to me. I thought of that time I mentioned wanting to bake banana bread and my dad casually handing me a bag full of baking utensils to take home the next week.

I wake up every morning to the sight of sunflowers hanging on my wall. There is a certain kind of intimacy in someone knowing you well enough to gift you such a thing, and I think that’s the point of it all.

Written by Lhya Munive


Lee, Seung Cheol. “The (anti-)social Gift? Mauss’s Paradox and the Triad of the Gift.” European Journal of Social Theory, vol. 23, no. 4, 2020, pp. 631-648.


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