The Gift Economy

Christmas, and the gift economy

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 24th December 2011

“Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, [and] good will towards men”.

So reads the King James version of the Gospel according to Luke, Chapter 2, Verse 14. Christmas, the season of peace and goodwill: ‘for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whosever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (Gospel according to John, Chapter 3, Verse 16).

No, this column has not suddenly transformed into something utterly different. But whatever one’s spiritual or religious inclinations, Christmas does provide the opportunity for reflection; to take a step back from what normally preoccupies us through the rest of the year. Hence the subtle change in tone and content…

For most of us in Australia, as in many other countries and cultures with Christian traditions, Christmas is a time of relaxation, to be spent in the company of family and friends. It is also a time for the exchange of gifts.

These days, arguably the most important function of gift-giving – taking an admittedly cynical perspective – is to keep the tills busy and the consumer-driven economy ticking over. But of course there is a much deeper meaning and symbolism to the exchange of gifts. Every time we do it we’re re-enacting the original story of Christmas, in which the three ‘wise men’ bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus. There is, as the verse from John shows, the ‘gift’ of Jesus himself, to humanity as a whole; and his ultimate sacrifice.

And of course there is the embodiment of the Christmas spirit, St Nicholas; a 4th century A.D. Greek bishop and orphaned son of wealthy parents, who, so legend has it, often made secret gifts to help those in dire need.

This is why Christmas is a season of ‘goodwill’ and generosity, associated with giving. Many charities make Christmas appeals, asking us to extend this spirit of generosity beyond our immediate circle of intimates, to those ‘less fortunate’ than us.

Why, we might ask, is it only at Christmas that we’re expected to embrace this spirit of generosity?

But wait: what if many of us – perhaps even most of us – actually embody this generosity in many ways in our daily lives throughout the whole year? What if there in fact exists a ‘gift economy’ which underpins the money-based exchange eceonomy, and without which the latter would cease to function?


What forms does this ‘gift economy’ take? What, for that matter, is a ‘gift economy?’ According to Wikipedia (the modern-day fount of much knowledge!), it’s ‘a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards’.

Think about that. This includes, for starters, all forms of volunteer activity. All donations to charities. All acts of friendship, when you share your home, your food, your labour, or your time, with your friends.  Shouting your mates a round in the pub is a manifestation of the gift economy.

But the gift economy extends further than this. It includes all parenting, and other forms of caring activities. What service could be more valuable to society as a whole than raising children, who in their turn will form the next generation of workers, performing all the essential functions to maintain and enhance our culture?  Yet as any father – and especially mother – will say, parenting involves a great deal of sacrifice. It is a permanent act of giving in every sense of the word.

Of course, as the time and money demands on all of us have intensified in recent decades, many aspects of parenting, and other caring activities, have been outsourced to the exchange economy. I remember as a young child all my grandparents living, and being cared for in, the family home by my mother, till their very last days. That would be a rarity now, I suspect.

But the gift economy goes still further, beyond the human realm. Our market economy treats nature ‘as a free gift’. Next time I’ll look at the implications of this. For now, Merry Christmas!