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The Giving Month

This week, on the 5th of December it is Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, which makes this an excellent opportunity to talk a little about what Sinterklaas, Christmas, birthdays and the first encounters in the Caribbean between indigenous people and Europeans have in common? The central importance of gift giving.


Of course, December in the Netherlands and other European countries has traditionally been a month for religious feasting and celebration, with certain traditions tracing some of their roots back to ancient Germanic midwinter rituals. However, in the last century a new trend emerged in which these celebrations have become more about or relations with other people than with gods, spirits and ancestors.

I have noticed that the importance of giving and sharing is particularly emphasized this year. Many stores are going with advertising slogans like “Deelcember” or “Sharecember” and “Geefmaand” or “Giving Month” to get people to spend a little more in our already generous celebrations of our family and friends (I doubt if the slogans work, though: they sound only a little better in Dutch than they do in English). This change in the focus of our December rituals has been accompanied with an upsurge of the cost and amount of gifts people give to each other. Why is that? Why do people even have the need to express their relations to each other through materialistic giving, receiving and giving back?

Many, many bookshelves of sociological, ethnographical and economic studies have been written about the need for people to give special and often valuable things to each other (including some that focused on Sinterklaas and Christmas, see the suggested reading below). None of them has really been successful in cracking the mystery of the gift, but see below in the suggested reading for some well-known and widely celebrated attempts. I have also devoted quite a bit of my own studies to this topic, in particular focusing on the gift economy of the Pre-Colonial Caribbean.

Something that would be noticed right away by a time-traveler visiting the pre-1492 shores of the Caribbean is the total absence of places accepting credit cards, ATMs and even cash money. This is not a problem since you would not need them: total strangers would be more than willing to offer you food, lodging and even some of their valuable items for seemingly nothing in return except the expectation that you behave equally generously. The idea is not that these noble savages simply weren’t briefed when someone in Europe “discovered the economy”, but that the indigenous people of the Caribbean were living in societies with an economy that is radically different from our own. At least, that is the idea that my Caribbean colleagues and I are working with based on what we know from the study of archaeology, historical documents and similar societies around the globe.

In a gift economy every day is Sinterklaas or Christmas, with which I mean that most (although not all) exchanges between people are not about buying an object from another person, but about socializing, sharing and (re-)affirming relations with other people. Sinterklaas every day? To the 8 year old kid in me that sounds great, but think about it: there is also a lot of potential for awkwardness, hurt feelings and general emotional stress that comes with special days like Sinterklaas, Christmas and other gift feasts. Worse, that gift you didn’t like or got double? You can’t even return it to the store the following day, because it won’t open until 1492. One gift faux pas in a gift economy and your whole economic and social standing is ruined.

The result of this is that, while we are gift amateurs that only bring the goods on special occasions, the Antilleans were (and in many respects still are today) experts at thinking up and presenting good gifts to others. José Oliver, one of the other specialists on this topic, and I have even argued that this was one of the main tasks for the Greater Antillean caciques, or community leaders. It were these Caribbean “Sinterklazen” or Santa Clauses that met with Columbus and other Europeans when they first landed on the islands. The Europeans weren’t welcomed with spears (at least at first), but, if we are to believe the arguably biased Spanish accounts, with literal boatloads of gifts. These gifts were presented at carefully chosen moments and they were things that, at least from the perspective of the indigenous people, were a perfect fit for the person they were given to. This was a notion that was clearly received loud and clear by the Europeans, as Columbus remarks in this quite profound musing on indigenous generosity (translated from the Spanish transcription by Bartolomé de las Casas):

“‘Let no one say,’ declares the Admiral, ‘that what they gave was worth little and therefore they gave generously, because those who gave pieces of gold did so as generously as those who gave a gourd of water. Besides it is easy, ‘continues the Admiral, ‘to tell when one gives something with his heart, truly wishing to give.”

What type of gifts were given and what the reasons were to give these valuable and invaluable things to complete outsiders is a whole different story (one best saved for later and told by one of our other experts on this topic: Floris Keehnen). Let’s end with the thought that although we wouldn’t want it to be Sinterklaas or Christmas every day, there may be a lot that we can learn from the Caribbean and other type of gift economies. For instance, rather than spending a lot of money on gifts and feasts in this giving month, carefully thinking about what you give to others and sharing with loved ones and strangers alike is something that should work all year round.

For now, I and the rest of the Nexus team wish for you to have many people around you this December that “give something with their heart, truly wishing to give”.

By Angus A. A. Mol

Further reading: General Anthropology of the Gift

• Bronislaw Malinowski: Argonauts of the Western Pacific

• Marcel Mauss: Essai sur le don

• Aafke Komter: Het geschenk

• David Graeber: Debt, the first 5000 yearsCaribbean Gift Economy

• José Oliver: Caciques and Cemi Idols

• Floris Keehnen: Trinkets (f)or Treasure

• Angus Mol: Costly Giving, Giving Guaízas and, as my gift to you, a free PDF copy here (this should be a link).

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