It's unavoidable. This time every year, without fail, the moralists come out in force to tell us that we're consuming too much. Sky-high credit card bills, enough food to feed an army, and a mountain of waste for each child provides incontrovertible evidence that we're over-indulging and destroying the true meaning of Christmas. It is, so they say, about reflection and family, not bling and booze.
Modern life and mass consumption are generally blamed for this travesty. The rise of individualism in capitalist society has resulted in the fragmentation of families, and a shift towards expressing our identities through indulgent spending. In the old days, this never happened: consumption was always moderate and considered, not the rampant and destructive behaviour we witness today.
Or so we are led to believe. In fact, a quick survey of global cultures indicates that this viewpoint is completely and utterly wrong. Not only is it untrue that gift-giving represents a shift in social values, but it's also completely false that conspicuous consumption is a new fad.
Gift-giving has always been a central activity of human life. Human beings in all times and places have given each other gifts to celebrate the relationships they have with each other. In fact, it's been argued — and generally agreed — among anthropologists that gift-giving is the 'social glue' that holds us all together.
Whether we're talking about religious festivals, birthdays, buying a round of drinks at a bar, or inviting friends over for dinner, gift-giving is inextricable from all of our meaningful relationships. Through the process of choosing, wrapping and presenting gifts, we show that we care.
Universally, turning down a gift can be the most insulting thing that you do. It's not just bad manners, its a rejection of a relationship, the biggest "fuck you" that you can ever give someone.
Crucially, our loving and caring natures aren't just demonstrated through giving. In order to be considered good people, we also have to be ready to receive gifts. Universally, turning down a gift can be the most insulting thing that you do. It's not just bad manners, its a rejection of a relationship, the biggest "fuck you" that you can ever give someone.
"But surely, it's the quantity of gifts that's out of control," I hear you say, "That's where we've all gone wrong in contemporary times." Not so. Again, anthropology tells us that there's nothing new under the sun, and what we're witnessing has surprising precedents.
To appreciate the purpose of consumption for consumption's sake, cast your imagination over to the north-west coast of Canada and the United States. Think back a couple of hundred years, to an indigenous village who are holding a traditional feast called the 'potlatch' (meaning 'gift'). Like their neighbours up and down the coast, this village holds a potlatch annually to celebrate the year gone by and to redistribute wealth among the group, so that no single family has much more than anyone else.
In the reverse of our contemporary society, the family with the highest status isn't the one that retains the most wealth; it's the one that gives the most away. So, the potlatch is an institution to ensure that social hierarchy is kept under control, by making it a virtue to give.
However, the potlatch comes with a twist. When Europeans arrived in the late 18th century, the flow of goods into these communities increased significantly. With so much to go around, these items took on a new social function. Rather than redistribute them, families started burning goods during the potlatch ceremony. By indicating that they had so much stuff that they couldn't give it away, they were essentially demonstrating that the potential of their generosity was endless.
Potlatching was banned in Canada in 1884. Ironically, the English authorities saw it as wasteful and a major obstacle to converting the natives to Christianity. They certainly did not understand the point of the ceremony, the fact that it is both a social and an economic institution, or the role that material exchange plays in social reproduction.
If we want to claim that our present-day Christmas is over-indulgent and destructive, and that 'traditional' practices are somehow more correct and moral, then we ought to spare a thought for the potlatch. Although altered by the arrival of Europeans, the potlatch still operated according to a centuries-old social logic. The destruction of goods wasn't a major departure from past practices, but a logical extension of them.