Have you planned out your holiday gift giving yet? If you’re anything like me, you might be waiting until the last minute. But whether every single present is already wrapped and ready, or you’ll hit the shops on Christmas Eve, giving gifts is a curious but central part of being human.
While researching my new book, “So Much Stuff,” on how humanity has come to depend on tools and technology over the last 3 million years, I became fascinated by the purpose of giving things away. Why would people simply hand over something precious or valuable when they could use it themselves?
So, what explains the power of the present?
Undoubtedly, gifts serve lots of purposes. Some psychologists have observed a “warm glow” – an intrinsic delight – that’s associated with giving presents. Theologians have noted how gifting is a way to express moral values, such as love, kindness and gratitude, in Catholicism, Buddhism and Islam. And philosophers ranging from Seneca to Friedrich Nietzsche regarded gifting as the best demonstration of selflessness. It’s little wonder that gifts are a central part of Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and other winter holidays – and that some people may even be tempted to regard Black Friday, the opening of the year-end shopping season, as a holiday in itself.
But of all the explanations for why people give gifts, the one I find most convincing was offered in 1925 by a French anthropologist named Marcel Mauss.