By Trish Nicholson
Before being sucked under the spells of retail elves and their Christmassy shelves, let’s take a not-too-serious look at the meaning of gifts over the ages.
The proverb ‘never look a gift-horse in the mouth’ is known across Europe in languages from Icelandic to Russian, but for anyone unfamiliar with this advice, it means we should not judge the intrinsic value of a gift. Experienced horse-dealers amongst you will know that the age and condition of a horse is gauged from its teeth: when you notice that the lavishly gift-wrapped box of chocolates your cousin sent you is nine months beyond its use-by date, you know you’ve been given a useless old nag.
It may be the thought that counts, but what, exactly, were they thinking?
In its purest form, giving is caring with no expectation of reward. It may demand equal commitment in learning to accept graciously. During a hectic working life I dashed off for fleeting visits to a favourite elderly aunt whenever I could. When the time came for me to leave, my aunt would press into my hand a package of squelchy spam sandwiches made with love to protect me from starvation on my 60-minute rail journey home. I could never stomach the sandwiches though I learnt to appreciate the gift with a full heart.
Like storytelling, gift-exchange emerged during the dawn of human history. The gift of an antelope steak given in good faith, accepted with grace, and later reciprocated with a well-knapped spear-head, created whole networks between families, clans and tribes. In time, the exchange of gifts developed into the first trade deals as the relative value of each item was arduously negotiated, but the significance was always more than economic – it created relationships based on trust. Even stories were bartered. Itinerant storytellers have long earned a night’s lodging with a good story, as Odysseus did in Homer’s Odyssey.
Barter remains important in many parts of the world. While living in Papua New Guinea I acquired my treasured collection of clay pots and shells through barter. And travelling in the Amazon, I exchanged my wellington boots for a two-metre poisoned-dart blow-pipe in a Yaguar village (a keep-sake that caused sensational hassles at every airport security check). Both transactions involved forging relationships – telling stories and learning to understand each other.
But in the same way that stories multiplied and diversified across the world, so did the forms and meanings of gift-giving.
A Viking chief was expected to be generous to his followers in dispensing loot from raiding expeditions. By gifts of gold to award valour and encourage loyalty, great leaders became known as ‘Ring Givers’. However, evidence of buried gold hoards suggests that some chiefs preferred to hide their ill-gotten gains underground – the Norse equivalent of an off-shore account. Gifts in exchange for loyalty are still a widespread practice, from the discount offered on your store loyalty card to the appointment of corporate raiders to plum jobs in government administrations.
Perhaps the most dramatic ritual gift-giving is the potlach ceremony, developed to a fine art by the Native American Kwakiutl peoples of the north-west coast. Any social or personal milestone provided an excuse for a potlach, but the biggest feasts for the greatest number of guests, the longest speeches and the most lavish gifts were preserved for the installation of a new successor to the chieftaincy. And everyone in the tribe was expected to dig deep to contribute.
Potlach was all about status. The volume of goods distributed boosted the social standing of the giver, as the value of each gift reflected the status of the recipient, and the more guests to witness the transaction the more powerful the event. To fall short in any of these calculations courted political suicide. It requires no stretch of the imagination to see all of this in world leaders’ rounds of state visits funded by hapless tax-payers, not to mention presidential inaugurations.
Gifts often involve a catch. Even Saint Nicholas’ legendary generosity to children, celebrated in the Netherlands on December 5, was conditional upon each child’s past behaviour recorded in the Big Book. The medieval tradition, where Saint Nicholas’ helpers included frightening characters representing Satan, may have been the stick accompanying the carrots. But modern Zwarte Piet is a clownish trickster throwing tiny gingerbread biscuits into the crowd like confetti. As commercial interests focus on December 25th in line with most of Europe, the devil is forgotten and smart kids claim two Christmases.
Most religions recognised the importance of gift-giving either in shared celebration, as sweeteners to the gods or as a form of wealth distribution. Christians may follow the example of the Three Kings with their Christmas presents, but festive gift-giving features also in the Jewish Hanukkah and Hindu Divali, while giving alms to the needy is a central tenet of both Islamic and Sikh faiths. Although offering a small gift is a daily occurrence for Buddhists, I had not expected to be given an apple by the abbot while visiting a monastery in Bhutan. Luckily, I always take pens and postcards as little presents when travelling and found a spare pen in my pocket to reciprocate.Exchanging gifts appears to be a universal human practice but cultural awareness is advisable. Social occasions for gift-exchange occur throughout the year in China, but in a culture where maintaining ‘face’ ranks highly, what to give, to whom, when, and exactly how much to put into the ‘little red envelope’ poses an etiquette quagmire to the unwary.
My apologies if these reflections disrupt the Christmas gift-list you had already ticked off during the summer sales.
I may be a little biased, but to be on the safe side, I’m giving everyone books this year.
Trish Nicholson is a social anthropologist, author of narrative non-fiction and a former columnist. Her latest work, A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, is the only global social-history of storytelling. Trish’s other books include two travelogues: Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals, and Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. Trish lives in New Zealand. You can follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson and read her articles on www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com where there really is a tree house.
By Nora Vasconcelos
Diversions, Distractions, and Delightful Detours …when I came across with this lovely topic I only could think of Mexico City, because this amazing place offers a bit of everything for anyone who visits or lives in this singular metropolis.
You can enjoy a spectacular view from the top…
… a little of magic in the middle of an urban forest,
… an oaisis in the middle of the city,
… sunny days and blue skyes,
and cloudy, scary ones as well.
Sometimes you come across with small surprises…
and big surprises!
Occasionally, a fantastic replica of the Sistine Chapel pops up in the middle of the city…
Or a huge foot ball joins the scenery along with an ancient sculpture and the skyline.
Some other times, you can fine solace in one of the many city parks.
And of course …a lovely bookstore is always nearby!
So, either you have a specific itinerary, or you just feel like wondering around, Mexico City will always be full of exciting experiences waiting for you!
**All photos: copyright Nora Vasconcelos
By Nora Vasconcelos
For anyone travelling around Seattle, there’s an exhibition that cannot be missed. The extraordinary artist Chihuly has developed an amazing glass garden located next to the Space Needle at the Seattle Center.
Over there, all sort of shapes and colours come to live to give the visitors a unique experience.
The refined soft textures of the glass mix with some of the other elements that surround this singular sculptures shaped by Chihuly to create a fantasy world in which one can get lost for a short or a long time, depending on how slow everyone wants their experience to be.
So, if you happen to be in Seattle this summer, don’t miss the chance to get yourself lost into this wonderful magic glass world!
* All photos courtesy of Jorge Vasconcelos
Not so long ago, there was an international exhibition in the main square of Mexico City. it was a celebration of friendship among dozens of countries which sent representatives to this fair to share their culture with all the visitors.
The whole experience was really satisfactory, so I’ve chosen these images to share that nice feeling. They show little kids having lots of fun while flying around on small planes, parachutes and hot balloons. These handcrafts were made in Uruguay.
By Siobhan Phillips
A lot of people love personal letters now that very few people write them. We have publishing initiatives such as Letters in the Mail and The Letters Page, books such as For the Love of Letters (2007) or Signed, Sealed, Delivered (2014), and films such as Her (2013). Meanwhile, the United States Postal Service delivers more junk mail than first-class; rural post offices shutter; Saturday delivery remains under threat; and we send more than 200 billion emails and 15 billion texts a day worldwide.
‘[This] is a book about what we have lost by replacing letters with email,’ writes Simon Garfield at the start of To the Letter (2013). His answer is ‘individuality and authenticity’. I teach a class on letters as a literary and para-literary phenomenon, from the 18th-century aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, to Mallory Ortberg, co-founder of the site The Toast. The class invites epistolary nostalgia – then resists it, or studies it. The present fondness for letters tells us what we miss in our current habits of communication. But the history of letters is not exactly reassuring about the ways in which correspondence might redress the lack.
It can be hard to pin down what makes a personal letter, along with what makes for its individuality and authenticity. Connection is the most basic ‘reassurance that I am not floating out there alone in the universe’, as Nina Sankovitch writes in Signed, Sealed, Delivered. A letter links two particular persons, even when its words are handed round and read to others. And while we’re more connected than ever now, our connections can be less specific – we post a lot of ‘personal’ updates to a varied or unknown audience who has no responsibility to respond.
Still, emails and texts do keep us tethered; we won’t lose Sankovitch’s reassurance when the post office shutters. Nor will we lose the importance of writing – the next-most-obvious quality of the personal letter. Some indictments of our digital lives seize on the virtues of in-person, face-to-face interaction – put down the phone and talk – but even Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation (2015), recommends the letter in her earlier book Alone Together (2011). Personal letters have long made the case that writing allows people to grow closer in ways conversation might not. That benefit continues: for example, an article on mental health hotlines in The New Yorker in 2015 notes fuller communication via text exchanges than voice calls.
Other benefits do not, though. Fans of the personal letter are not satisfied with emails or texts because they want more than writing at a distance; they want handwriting at a distance. ‘Basically: it’s all about handwriting,’ John O’Connell writes in For the Love of Letters (2012). Wonderful email correspondences – such as I’m Very Into You (2015) between the novelist Kathy Acker and the writer McKenzie Wark, or between the poet Max Ritvo and the playwright Sarah Ruhl – contradict this claim, but its hyperbole is important. Physicality feeds the letter’s distinct appeal. Words on paper bring something that one person has touched to the touch of another; they metonymically figure the human body by transporting its combination of persistence and perishability.
Words on a screen have no such power. Tributes to the personal letter, therefore, can swell with mortal pathos: Turkle holds her mother’s correspondence ‘as though I hold her heart in my hands’; Sankovitch reads her sister’s letters and touches ‘the very substance of who she was’. Or they can play with sensuality. Garfield likes how letter-writing requires ‘the whole of our hands and not just the tips of our fingers’ – and in the epistolary-tinged sexism of Her, a letter-writer purchases a female helpmeet with just enough body.
It’s worth understanding the origins of what seems like an arbitrary emphasis on material. With the 18th-century rise of the public sphere, as Michael Warner shows in The Letters of the Republic (1992), the published stuff proper to that realm had to be printed – which meant, it had to sever its connection with the human hand. Hand-writing, then, could signal the reverse, a private sphere that worked against – or protected one from – the abstractions of the public. If the latter was (purportedly, anyway) impersonal and disinterested, the former was specific and emotional. Just the place for reflective communication between particular people. Handwriting signalled its distinction.
So did delay. Temporal vagary is the final essential characteristic of the personal letter; with physicality, it sets the personal letter against digital messages. Correspondence presumes reply but not immediately. Punctual chasms allow emotions to clarify, deepen, resonate – Turkle celebrates time for reflection; Sankovitch finds ‘something wonderful about that interval’. The call of personal correspondence is not the Pavlovian, or Fordist, ping of an email or text, demanding immediate attention. Letter-writers are allowed a sensation of power over the narrative of their lives. Letter-writers can insist on their own – wasteful, unpredictable – clock. Just as a letter’s physical presence, then, resists the rationalisations of the public sphere, its temporal idiosyncrasies resist the efficiencies of capitalist production.
Indeed, the history of the personal letter is part of the history of these resistances, ready for contemporary emulation. It’s a feminist history. Letters have often been gendered feminine, just as the private sphere, full of irrational and non-productive sentiment, has for three centuries been seen as female. The editors Frank and Anita Kermode, for example, note in The Oxford Book of Letters (2003) that ‘a great many of the most accomplished letter-writers have been women’. (Though two-thirds of the contents they chose are written by men.) Letter-writing was part of the cultured woman’s accomplishments, one of her tools of seduction and defences against it. Letter-writing was the space for her to develop authority apart from a realm of published authorship. Along the way, letter-writing was a way for her to develop values that were not public ones – not a matter of capitalist worth or liberal politics.
Except that the private, epistolary sphere – from the start, and especially in the United States – worked more to complement than undermine its public, un-epistolary counterpart. The private sphere always had an economic and political role. Letters did, too. Consider the rhetoric of the antebellum United States, in which the ‘intimacy and authenticity’ of personal letters were used both to further and to criticise abolition. Letters contribute to the ‘intimate public sphere’ of hybrid, feminised, semi-political spaces. (The TinyLetter email newsletter marks the latest instance of this phenomenon.)
Much of what seems troublesome in digital culture today – the necessity of ‘personal brands’; the ubiquity of a politics of feeling; the transformation of sociality into unpaid labour; the unmarked blending of business contacts and ‘friends’ – much of this exaggerates letterish trends that for generations have worked to mix the private and the public while seeming to maintain the border between them. Scholars from several disciplines have shown how neoliberal markets and politics makes the ‘feminine’ a general (if still execrated) state: contingent, affective, unremunerated practice is becoming the basic condition of work and citizenship. Correspondence is part of this. Letters have faded because epistolarity persists.
If that’s the case, it’s hard to trust in going ‘back’ to the personal letter – that is, hard to trust in writing by hand at a variable delay to a specific other person before waiting for their reply. We need, absolutely, to understand and value a heritage of correspondence; and we should preserve and guarantee a robust public infrastructure for private exchange. But we also need to understand how the ‘personal’ has always been a category ripe for co-option by the very forces it is meant to mitigate and assuage. Perhaps the most useful lesson of the personal letter is in the way it shifts and changes, proving that what we call intimacy, individuality or authenticity does not transcend time – or remain locked in history. The ‘personal’ is what its genres do. Those genres, letters included, continue.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.