Sacred Objects: Gift-Giving

The sacredness of gift-giving does not come naturally to me. One holiday season when I was a child, my mother and I went to visit a friend of hers. Mom entrusted me with the role of carrying the gift she was bringing, and of physically handing it off. As soon as we got in the door, I marched right up to our hostess and announced: “Here are your earrings, Pam!”

As I grew older, I managed to elevate my awkwardness around gift-giving to an international scale. When my American colleagues and I first arrived in Ankara, Turkey, to teach conversation skills at an English-language university, we were taught of the custom in that country to refuse any gift three times before accepting it. One must not, the thinking goes, appear too greedy to receive the generous offering. This led to a curious moment just before the winter holidays when there were office parties and a mixing of American and Turkish traditions; has everyone agreed to accept gifts by default, we wondered, or is it still necessary to somehow turn down a gift three times if it comes from your Secret Santa? The Turkish teachers assured us there was no need to turn the gift down three times in that scenario, and graciously insisted that the custom was rarely followed nowadays anyway.

So when I was little, I accidentally took a very literal view of gift-giving. As a young adult I inadvertently delved into the awkwardness that can arise from different cultural expectations around gift-giving. But as a Unitarian Universalist and a minister, I have grown to appreciate the meaning-making that accompanies gift-giving, and to honor it as a symbol of the most important aspects of who we are in religious community.

Honoring gift-giving as meaningful in and of itself is not a trivial viewpoint in our modern American economy. Much has been written in recent years about the economics of gift-giving, and how giving people presents is worse than giving cash or gift cards or charitable donations in a person’s name. Joel Waldfogel published a paper in 1993 in the American Economic Review entitled “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas”. In this paper he argued that over ten percent of the spending on holiday gifts resulted in deadweight loss, because of the difference in how much one person spent on a gift, versus how much another person valued it. He writes: “…the best a gift-giver can do with, say, a $10 gift, is to duplicate the choice the recipient would have made.” However, he continues: “it is more likely the gift will leave the recipient worse off than if she had made her own consumption choice with an equal amount of cash. In short, gift-giving is a source of deadweight economic loss.”

Now, I think it is worth noting that the study that led to these conclusions was done based on surveys given to Yale undergraduates, and while there are many fine traits that over-privileged 19-year-olds possess, one does not necessarily assume a deep sense of gratitude to be among them. My apologies to any Yalies here this morning. No need to identify yourselves now, I’ll see you at the Regatta!

I sense that Waldfogel has gotten a lot of pushback in the last twenty-something years though, because he gave an interview in 2016 where he said “[gift-giving] can make both givers and recipients happy in ways that buying for oneself might not. So jumping to the conclusion that people should stop giving gifts is by itself not necessarily warranted.” I take both his original and his more recent points.

There’s a lot to be said for a practice of gift-giving that empowers the choices of the receivers, like giving money does. I do that often, and I am always grateful and excited when I get money as a present. It is no doubt a rational way to show our love and appreciation for each other. But I hope we will not throw the baby out with the bathwater by denying the value of what it feels like to give and receive items that are thoughtfully chosen.

Indeed, there is a deep sacredness to gift-giving throughout human history. In an 1954 essay entitled The Gift, Marcel Mauss outlines what gift-giving says about the relationship between humans and divine. He connects gift-giving rituals in many cultures with religious rituals, positing that gift-giving practices are a reflection of the relationship between humans and the divine, that they are in fact a central element in religious life. He illustrates how that happens in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Native American religion, and I will add how I have seen it show up in UU faith communities.

The Encyclopedia of Religion draws on Mauss’ work to describe that in Hinduism, “…in the period following 600 bce, in the aftermath of the growing anthropomorphization of the deity, the characteristic offerings in worship were likened to the food and gifts given to exalted human beings. Thus, it has often been mentioned that the style of Hindu temple worship is patterned after the court life of ancient India. The deity is considered to be the most respectable and powerful associate of humanity, a visitor from another realm who condescends to dwell for a time within images in temples, and who can be approached with gifts, services, art, music, and literature. In fact, gifts from the whole realm of human creativity can be offered to him.” Here we can see that the gift-giving rituals of humans were literally being enacted as religious rites. We can start to see the sacred importance of gift-giving for human cultures.

We see it also in Buddhism, where again the Encyclopedia of Religion notes: “There is a type of gift giving that is explicitly meant to relieve the needs of the poor and the destitute, called almsgiving. Almsgiving likewise has a role to play in the economy of ascetic life, wherein monks and nuns live under some kind of vow of poverty and must therefore be supported by the actively working laity. Since Buddhism is a religion in which the monastic community… is the main focus, it follows that almsgiving will be a general practice among Buddhists.” So, it even seems to work both ways; the gift-giving practices of a culture can shape what it’s worship of the divine looks like in Hinduism, while in Buddhism the religious ascendence of monasticism shapes the gift-giving practices of the culture to revolve around the practice of almsgiving. A clearer sense emerges here that gift-giving is no trivial aspect of who we are and how we are together, but rather a definitional one, whether we are aware of it or not.

Mauss describes the tradition of the potlatch that emerged among the Native American tribes of the northwest region of North America as the most meaningful illustration of gift-giving’s power. They were an instance in which the practices around gift-giving shaped the structures of both the economy and the meaning-making of the tribes they originated in. Potlatches are [according to the Encyclopedia of Religion] “an elaborate celebration entailing the lavish display and distribution of the host’s possessions.” One example was the Kwakiutl Indians, for whom the distribution of gifts was not about accumulation of possessions, but rather the gaining of status by demonstrating one’s munificence. Mauss describes the multi-faceted role of the potlatch, writing: “It is religious, mythological and shamanistic because the chiefs taking part are incarnations of gods and ancestors, whose names they bear, whose dances they dance and whose spirits possess them. It is (also) economic; and one has to assess the value, importance, causes and effects of transactions which are enormous even when reckoned by European standards.” Here again, gift-giving is of foundational importance to the meaning structure of a culture. All of these examples, from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Native American religion, point to a level of sacred importance for humans of how we give one another gifts.

As I was reflecting on gift-giving in UU congregations, and the ways we build sacred meaning through this practice, I kept coming back to an image from my home congregation in Central Maine. There, we would have a Religious Education volunteer recognition service at the end of each program year. We call our program Religious Exploration at UUCA, but when I was growing up it was Religious Education.  At the recognition service, each of the volunteers were given a perennial flower in a 4-inch pot filled with soil. The flowers were donated by Bill and Rachel Marsch-Sachs, who own and operate a perennial farm. The farm is their business, and it is also how they donate to the congregation; the proceeds from their plants at the annual church yard sale make them some of the highest givers to the church in financial terms. I also admire the spiritual generosity embodied in the process of growing something on your land, putting it on a truck, bringing it directly to your spiritual community, and nurturing that community through your gift.

When I arrived at UUCA, I found we also have an established practice of giving gifts to our RE volunteers each spring. It’s hard to have a big enough garden in Metro Atlanta that you can grow thousands of plants each year the way Bill and Rachel do. But in 2013 I had the privilege of sitting down with Michelle Bishop and Mr. Barb Greve to decide what the gifts would be that we would give to our RE volunteers, and how we would brand them with UUCA’s Phoenix logo in purple, the color we have adopted for branding our Religious Exploration program. Over the course of several years, the presents we came up with were a water bottle, tote bag, drink cozy, bottle opener, and blanket. We had a great time imagining folks using those all together to have a family picnic. Those RE volunteer gifts were designed, ordered, and delivered with great love, and with appreciation for the gratitude they represented. They represented both our gratitude as staff who had the privilege of taking responsibility for them, and of the whole congregation who pitched in to make the gifts possible. They represented the weaving of a multigenerational, multicultural community that changes lives. It is a web that you all have helped to weave as parents, facilitators, mentors, chaperones, editors, donors, supporters, encouragers, musicians, guides, comprehensive sexuality educators, role models, listeners, and in so, so many other ways too numerous to name but too important not to hold in our hearts. This web of UU Lifespan Religious Exploration has shaped everyone in this room, and our families, and it has nurtured literally hundreds of thousands of young adults and adults in our wider world who may or may not be active, pledging members of UU congregations, but who are some of the most moral people I know, some of the people the world needs most right now. Gift-giving is a sacred ritual, and by giving presents to our RE volunteers, we express our holy gratitude for their contributions to the work of Religious Exploration.

Although RE gifts make up only a small part of the life of our congregation, they are important aspects of how we make meaning and demonstrate the importance of Religious Exploration in our congregation and in our world. Just as many Buddhists practice almsgiving because monasticism is crucial to their faith communities, we practice volunteer recognition and gift-giving, because Religious Exploration is crucial to our faith community. In the coming months, UUCA will once again be recruiting volunteers for many important roles in our RE program. I hope you will consider volunteering as you are able. Whether you are an almsgiver or a venerable monk, or both, UUCA is grateful to you for the ways you contribute to our life-changing program of Religious Exploration. I am grateful to all of you for nurturing the present and future of a faith that I love. Thank you. I love you all very much.

Peace, salaam, shalom, and may it be so.