“Gift giving can be the opposite of what it is designed to be,” one of the participants, let’s call her Celeste, sighed at a recent community gathering I hosted.
“In my family,” she continued,”gift giving is really problematic. People get very stressed over giving the right gift. And there is a lot of social class involved that can lead to a lot of shame - some members of my family are quite wealthy and others are really not. There can be a lot social awkwardness. Sometimes I just wish we didn’t have to give gifts at all.”
Her comment jolted me. I immediately recognized where she was coming from; I have recognized this pattern in many families, especially those that have become lost in the consumerism and are not grounded in either the depth of a tradition or in healthy relationships with one another and the earth. Its actually painful to watch what is the "despiriting' pattern of gift giving. To despirit is to take way the spirit, the potential life-giving meaning of a particular action. When gift giving serves ego (especially the giver's ego) and social strata more than generating life, then gift giving gets, well, depressing.
Her comment jolted me not because I was not familiar with dispirited gift giving but because I’ve been spending much of the past few weeks focused on supporting and promoting a very particular gift: hand stitched organic cotton bags died from medicinal - I’m tempted to say magical - plants by some friends of mine in south India.
I have been showing off these beautiful bags to whomever I’ve been meeting, and most of the time, they are met with “ooooh” as people fall in love with the soft fabric, bright colors and bold designs. Perhaps because I am connected to this collective of intellectually challenged women who are making these bags, I take great delight in watching my network get as excited as I am about their handiwork. The image in this post is of our friend Oona Chaplin - watching her go 'ooooh' when she received this organic cotton bag was part of what inspired me to want to enable these bags to be given to others.
These kinds of gift giving are, in short, the exact opposite of Celeste’s experience with her family.
We are living in such different worlds simultaneously. Many of us move in between them, and the way we experience gift giving is such a powerful part of it.
On the one hand, there are more and more hand-made, organic, and even fully regenerative tangible objects that bring delight to the senses, are useful, and bring easy smiles to people’s everyday life. People young and old delight in them. Both the maker and the person who wears the splash of turmeric-yellow have a sense of one another (in part because whenever possible I send pictures of people wearing their bags back to the women in India, which they love).
I know a substantial network of organic crafters and women's collectives throughout India who are making incredible, beautiful creations that are revitalizing old traditions and forging ahead new ones. I am learning and leaning into similar networks in Native America ( aka Indian Country). I sell my own paintings and writing, as well as my (forthcoming) circular calendar journals , and many members of my community are themselves makers and crafters of various forms. So my own life is rich with these enchanted forms of exchange - ones where myths and stories, songs and other forms of delight are circling around one another.
Holiday craft markets are growing every year; more and more people are buying local, buying organic, and buying by women-owned enterprises in various ways for their holiday gifts. And more and more people are leaving other forms of work to be full time crafters, makers, doers. So that’s happening.
And at the same time, the holidays continue to perpetuate that kind of competitive, what’s the most expensive gift, the classiest designer, kind of mentality. So that is also happening.
Combined (with an emphasis still on the later), retail is expected to top 1.1 trillion this holiday season. (That includes holiday decorations).
Perhaps obviously, I would say, the more enchanted forms of gift giving, the better - for everyone.
What enables families to shift from one form of exchange to another? What enables us to value the hand made, the local, the original, the authentic? To go not only from authentic... but to enchanted? That's another article, I dare say.
Perhaps more important,