Two pairs of hands hold a brown paper wrapped present undoing the red ribbon

Anthropology: Unwrapping the Layers of a Cultural Christmas and Gift Exchange

Understanding the anthropology of a cultural Christmas offers diverging perspectives on the festive holiday. More than just a distinct day in the December calendar, Christmas time illuminates cultural values that tell endless stories about our society and what we adore. Moreover, gift exchange is a crucial foundation for many Western Christmas celebrations. But the symbols and meanings imbued within this seemingly materialistic practice tell more profound stories of culture and living. By unwrapping the layers of gift exchange in different cultures around the world, we can challenge the pervasive (and often shallow) Western perspective on the purpose of giving and receiving.

The origins of a cultural Christmas: A Christian ritual

Close-up shot of the Nativity scene figurines
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As suggested by its name, ‘Christmas’ has roots in one of the world’s largest religions: Christianity. For Christians, Christmas is an English term for ‘mass on Christ’s day’, meaning the celebration or memorial of Jesus Christ’s birth. Around the 3rd century A.D., people began to celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday.

The Roman Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus dated Jesus’ conception to March 25. After nine months in his mother’s womb, Africanus calculated his birth date to be December 25th.

Despite originating as a uniquely Christian ritual, Christmas is now celebrated worldwide by people from all religions and cultures. Many of those who celebrate the festive holiday today are unaware of its cultural origins, but choose to participate anyway for the love, family and celebratory elements that now dominate modern perceptions of Christmas.

Cultural Christmas commercialised in the Western world

A cartoon of a giant Santa holding a sac with the text ‘Christmas consumerism’ and stepping on a small elf who is expressing thanks
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What began as a religious celebration has morphed into a commercial enterprise in many parts of the world. Christmas cards, for example, are now a multimillion-dollar industry. Many children expect mountains of beautifully wrapped gifts under the Christmas tree, and some write long wish lists that send their parents on a frantic scavenger hunt to splurge their money. As Whiting asks, ‘…is [Christmas] truly just an excuse to buy more stuff?

The origins of gift-giving lie in the story of the Three Wise Men, who travelled to see Jesus after his birth, offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But unlike today, the three Wise Men brought only one gift, with each holding symbolic meaning. We seem to be divorced from Christmas’ religious origins and the true meaning of exchanging presents. Nowadays, we often make misguided assumptions about what other people want. Perhaps we need a return to minimalism and a heightened appreciation of symbolic value over excessive material consumption.

Despite this, if we strip away the commercialism, it is clear that many countries infuse their ancient cultural traditions into Christmas. For example, while some people in Egypt and Russia celebrate Christmas on December 25th, many still celebrate it on January 7th, reflecting their religious culture’s rich history and traditions.

The impact of modern Christmas on religious festivities

 Silhouetted representation of the Nativity scene against a blue starry sky
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Anthropologist Daniel Miller says Christmas is now the centre of three important struggles that define being modern. These are our:

  • Changing relationships to family and kinship
  • Desire to be citizens of the globe without losing local origins
  • Problematic relationship to mass consumption and materialism

Our changing relationships to family and kinship

Firstly, while most Christmas celebrations still centre around family, the Holiday’s commercialisation introduces a new focus. Relationships and money have become intertwined – how much should I spend on this person? Are five gifts enough? How do I demonstrate my love and gratitude for my family through the presents I buy them? Interestingly, for some, the family focus at Christmas time is a reminder of why people tend to keep their wider family networks at a distance for the rest of the year. While the festive season is supposed to be a time of collective joy, it doubles as a time of high stress, anxiety, grief and loneliness, typically surrounding familial expectations.

Our desire to be citizens of the globe without losing local origins

Secondly, it seems that Christmas has engulfed many other seasonal festivals, standing in as the single symbol of the annual festival. At the same time, it has also spread to local areas that are not Christian and don’t have a traditional winter celebration. In these places, Christmas can barely be considered a religious holiday. However, there remain some countries that resist the global proliferation of Christmas. Many Israelis, for example, disdain Christmas to reinforce their sense of distinct identity; for them, it is just another working day.

Our problematic relationship with mass consumption and materialism

Two women face a storefront window lined with brown shopping bags and the text ‘YOU SHOP’ painted onto the glass
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Christmas may still be a festival of family closeness, but relentless exploitation is rooted in its modern celebrations. Both individual materialism and the capitalist profit-taking incentives of large companies now characterise the modern Christmas. Take, for example, the multi-national corporation Coca-Cola, which successfully used festive imagery (Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) to market their products. Far from being a holiday of traditional cultural significance, Christmas now embodies many of the core tropes of capitalism and business.

An Anthropological example of mass consumption: the Kwakiutl tribe and Potlatch

Sepia-toned image of a potlatch ritual with tribe members dressed in extravagant tribal wear
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons / Edward S. Curtis

Although most people think of gift-giving at Christmas as a Christian event, Northwest Natives also engaged in enormous gift exchange rituals on the solstice.

In Boas’ (1921) ethnology of the Kwakiutl tribe (Kwakwaka’wakw), we see conspicuous consumption in the form of ‘potlatch’. Conspicuous consumption is the purchase of goods or services for the specific purpose of displaying one’s wealth. This occupation with wealth and the image that expensive material goods portray to others often underlies much of the gift buying and receiving we do around Christmas – a time of mass gift exchange.

The potlatch ritual is uniquely customary to American Indians of the Northwest Pacific coast. It involves a huge ceremonial feast that allows hosting individuals to accumulate an appreciative audience outside of their immediate localised kin-ship group. In this way, the purpose of the potlatch is to affirm social status by positioning ‘poorer’ groups below them; in debt, unable to reciprocate, left only to admire. ‘Prestige investments’ accompanied by a boastful expenditure of wealth characterise this form of gift-giving. The enormity of the one-way gift-giving means that many are unable to return goods of equal value. This creates an unbalanced nature of the exchange and solidifies the host’s higher social status.

Modern Christmas both preserves and departs from cultural Christmas

Miller makes an interesting point on the way Christmas both preserves its religious origins while diverging from them at the same time:

Similarity: Like Jesus, Santa Claus is associated with miracles and gifts…and prayers (or at least prayers for gifts).

Differences: Jesus comes from the Middle East, Santa Claus from the North Pole. While Jesus is young and thin, Santa Claus is old and fat. Jesus is serious, Santa is jolly. Where Jesus dresses in humble white, Santa dresses in rich reds and furs. Jesus condemns materialism and Santa gives toys and luxuries but also has indulgencies such as alcohol and smoking.

Unwrapping the layers of gift exchange

Two pairs of hands exchange a red Christmas wrapped gift with a white bow and Christmas tree lights in the background
Image Source: Thomas Trutschel /

For most Westerners, gifts are an essential component of the annual Christmas ritual. Many families start their morning gathered around a pine-scented Christmas tree, unwrapping mountains of presents. In the lead-up to December 25th, people write wish lists and spend copious amounts of money on items deemed suitable for their receiver. But gift-giving holds deeper meaning in many cultures. Exchanging presents is more than an act merely required to avoid looking snobby or selfish. Rather, the process is often imbued with a rich cultural significance that extends all year round.

To illuminate the complexity and diversity of gift exchange and to challenge the idea that gifts are purely for Christmas and birthdays, let’s look at three examples:

  1. Gift exchange in the Kula Ring of the Trobriand.
  2. Gift exchange in modernised Japan (a country that typically does not celebrate Christmas as universally as other countries).
  3. The merging of gift and commodity in the American garage sale.

Gift exchange in the Kula Ring of the Trobriand Islands

Map of the Trobriand Islands and the Solomon Sea
Image Source: Wikipedia

The Kula Ring is a ritualistic exchange system spanning 18 island communities in the Trobriand Islands. The constant cycle of gift exchange goes beyond the material value or purpose of giving gifts in Western culture.

The connective element of Kula gift exchange

Here, gift-giving looks slightly different from the mountainous piles of presents waiting to be unwrapped once a year on your birthday. The exchange of gifts in the Kula Ring is imbued with a spiritual element (known as ‘Hau’). Hau connects people and strengthens inter-tribal bonds. According to Kuehling (2017), the value of materials circulated around the Kula Ring are not constructed by money (the cost is irrelevant in these exchanges), but rather, in emotional and personal terms. The valuables are fundamental in building and restoring relationships both within island communities and between Kula partners on other islands.

The social elements of the Kula system are also seen through its ability to solidify status amongst certain individuals. For instance, hereditary chiefs often acquire the most valuable shell items.

The transience of Kula gift exchange

According to Mauss’s original insights (1925), it is more blessed to give than receive. Therefore, there is huge social pressure to move gifts on in a ritually punctuated way. This expectation renders gift-giving in the Kula Ring a temporary and transient form, which contradicts many Western perceptions of gifts (particularly around Christmas and birthdays) where people expect you to keep the gift you are given for the sake of politeness if not utility.

Gift exchange in modernised Japan

A woman at the dinner table gifts a small brown paper bag with a red ribbon to the woman sitting next to her
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In Japan, there is an expectation you keep a gift for its utility. Here, people measure the value of gifts in relation to potential benefits for the receiver. Daniels’ (2009) ethnographic study of gift-giving among families in Japan challenges the distinction between the symbolic perspective (taken in the Kula Ring) and the utilitarian.

Japanese gifts are not valued for their capacity to preserve the memory of the giver. Rather, the gift is a tool used for its utilitarian and social connective qualities. For example, common gifts at Christmas time are household items like cooking utensils. Understanding the purpose of giving gifts in Japan nurtures a cultural Christmas. With this enlightenment, we can step away from the view that gifts are merely symbols of wealth and material possessions.

Returning to the social-enhancing qualities of gifts

Despite the focus on a gift’s practicality in Japan, Daniels acknowledges that gift exchange still plays a vital role in conserving social life by enabling the formation of links with other humans. For instance, people use household item gifts to make food for communal gatherings. These gatherings can enhance relationships. Similar to the spiritual power imbued in Kula gifts, the Japanese believe gift-giving links people with their ancestors. In this way, it still has social and spiritual power even behind its more practical exterior.

The merging of commodities into gifts: Gift exchange in the American garage sale

Three men stand next to tables topped with items at a garage sale out the front of a large wooden house
Image Source: Wikipedia

There are many social settings where there has been a merging of ‘gifts’ and ‘commodities.’ Herrmann’s (1997) study of the exchanges during American garage sales is one interesting example. In this context, charging money for possessions commodifies them. However, the personal exchanges during these transactions reconceptualise the items as gifts.

In the personal – yet simultaneously public – setting of the home-garage sale, many exchanges occur between strangers, so there is an opportunity to create social bonds. This is particularly so given the intangible emotional exchanges that often occur alongside the transfer of the once-loved physical item. In other words, the act of exchange itself is what creates the value of the item. The personal exchange denotes it as a gift rather than a commodity.

For example, Herrmann notes that ‘buyers may provide a piece of their personal lives in exchange for lower prices.’ This reconstructs the sale situation into a more personalised, gift-giving-like scenario with the item circulated to different homes. In this way, a gift can rarely be a commodity because something of the original owner always remains with it. In the words of Mauss (1925) ‘to give something is to give part of oneself’.

The dark side of gift exchange at Christmas

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With a focus on understanding cultures rather than merely observing and comparing them, anthropologists have realised that gifts as symbols can have a competitive edge linked to social status and power.

Gifting can also be vexing because it invades one’s independence and self-sufficiency. How often have you received a gift and felt guilty that you are unable to reciprocate it? Or how often do you judge how much you spend on someone for Christmas based on what they got you last year? If you have experienced this feeling of debt, you are likely aware of the dark side of gift exchange.

An anthropological perspective of ‘dark’ gift exchange views gift-giving as intensely driven by social control. When we receive a gift, do we have a choice to reciprocate it? And if we are unable to return the favour, what are the personal, moral and social consequences of this personal debt?

Anthropological significance of a cultural Christmas

A Christmas bauble with an image of the world on it hangs from a Christmas tree
Image Source: Getty Images

Anthropologists hold a great fascination for rituals and customs. Christmas is now an amalgamation of different traditions spanning across a global context. It is both a religious and a secular celebration, presenting a rich space for cultural analysis.

However, the dominance of the ‘Western Christmas’ around the world often comes at the expense of local traditions, speaking volumes to the unfettered dominance of Western culture.

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