With the anxiety of shopping for the perfect gift and the strain of expressing enthusiasm for receiving yet another lackluster present, it’s easy to wonder why we put ourselves through the whole process. This is not a new concern; exchanging gifts has presented a challenge across cultures and throughout time. This is probably because presents are not merely objects, but rather expressions of sentiments and a way to keep relationships active.
An example of this is the Kula Ring, a ceremonial practice spanning the Trobriand Islands in which gifts were exchanged to maintain social relationships between the givers and receivers. Participants of the exchange would travel hundreds of miles by canoe to deliver what were oftentimes trinkets without much monetary value, but the objects (e.g. shell necklaces) were nonetheless treasured and passed on because of the meaning imparted on them. The anthropologist Marcel Mauss described this enigmatic meaning as “the spirit of the gift”, positing that the purpose of the exchange was simply to keep the relationship between givers alive; in contrast to a market economy in which the intention is to make a profit, the kula ring was an economic system in which the currency was social ties.
Much like in our own society today, there was no legally enforceable system for what goods were gifted, but rather rules based on altruism and trust. Those who are hesitant or stingy with giving presents garner bad reputations, and generosity is exalted as a valuable virtue. So while you may not have to travel overnight by canoe to deliver your presents, the act itself of picking and giving a gift is a way of showing that you are invested in your relationship. Likewise, if you ever feel a twinge of disappointment over something you receive, keep in mind that the fact that you got something at all means that the giver cares about you, which is a gift in and of itself. Next time you’re struggling with a gift, remember, it’s the thought that counts.