Gifting vs. Gift Exchange

As a Burner, you would think that I would love the Xmas season.

It’s the time of year when normally modest streets turn into suburban Esplanades – with glowing plastic reindeer and gaudy strings of lights everywhere.

We even have a obsessive cultural focus on Gifting during the holidays.

Far surpassing eggnog, mistletoe or jingle bells, the importance of gift giving dominates the Xmas season.

This makes sense because the entire economy depends on end-of-the-year spending. The Dow Jones could care less about the rise and fall of snowmen or the number of carols sang per capita.

But a cultural frenzy of spending? That is important. And the barrage of lights, music, and advertising are all going to make sure you don’t forget.

This seems like it should be a good thing. Gifting is one of the 10 Principles – so wouldn’t a cultural focus on gift giving be a good thing?

Unfortunately, there is something about Gifting that has been lost in our modern practice of holiday cheer.

Let’s review what a gift is.

A gift is something given without expectation. It is an opportunity for the giver and the receiver to both receive pleasure.

One feels good about what they received. The other feels good that they have done something kind.

This does not happen in a transactional exchange.

If I go to the store and pay the cashier for a serving of figgy pudding, then I expect to receive it. I have traded something of comparable value for that item. In math terms, the sum value is zero.

But if you come to my house and GIFT me that pudding, I did not expect it. I am delighted by it. I get joy from it. And I do not have to give anything to get it. The sum of that exchange is +1.   If you feel joy from seeing me happier, then your experience is an additional +1.

A traditional, transactional exchange has an energetic equation of sum zero. But a gift results in plus two!

(If you come to my house and demand figgy pudding while singing songs, that is something else entirely.)

From this understanding, you start to notice that many scenarios that seem like they should be gifting, are actually transactions.

For example, you may have had an unfulfilling experience with a panhandler on the street.

He has a sign asking for change. You, being a kind person, give him some money. He says “Thank You,” but for whatever reason, you don’t feel all-that-great about your gifting. Why?

I would argue that this was actually a transaction. The panhandler is expecting money. By you giving it, you are not adding anything to his day, you are simply giving what he is asking for. (I am not commenting on whether he needs or deserves the money…just on why it doesn’t feel so good.)

In some ways what he is selling is an opportunity to ease your guilt.

I find it MUCH more satisfying to give to someone in need who isn’t overtly asking. I.e. I see someone dirty with a sleeping bag, “Hey, have you had breakfast, yet? Grab something on me.” In that scenario there is no exchange or transaction.
(If you want to tell me why you should never give money to homeless, you can save it. That is a debate for a different day.)

A similar thing happened when we institutionalized the holiday gifting tradition.

The whole concept of a “Gift Exchange” is a bit of a misnomer.

If I have to give you a gift, then that is not a gift. It is a transaction.

Sure, there can still be joy involved in expected gift giving. Like, when you put deep thought into a gift. Or if the item is deeply desired.   But it lacks all the magic of true Gifting.

Compare the scenario of bringing home flowers on a random day vs. bringing home flowers on Valentine’s Day. Which one is more touching?   (And if you have never given flowers to your partner for no reason, I suggest you do so TODAY.) If flowers are expected and you bring flowers, you are falling into a +1/-1 =sum zero equation.

Sadly, much of the holiday season has slipped into this transactional realm. You may be one of the rare people that loves the opportunity to shop and spend for every loved one and professionally-appropriate recipient. But for the rest of us, the holiday gift list just means we’ve added the hassle of a second part-time job. The obligation of shopping is just too much.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t exchange gifts. Let’s just try to reframe our perspectives so we can return to a joyful gift giving experience.

If I am instructed to give someone a gift card to Best Buy, how am I able to enjoy that experience? It feels almost like panhandling wrapped in tinsel and mistletoe.

And if someone shares their Amazon wish list, it makes gifting about as joyful as re-ordering office supplies.

There may be exceptions. Maybe your cousin is preparing for a trip to Peru and asked everyone for REI gift certificates.

Maybe your spouse is starting a new hobby of miniature train-building and sent direct links to make sure you knew the right scale of accessories to shop for.

The point is that we need to remember what Gifting is so that we can rescue the season from the clutches of commercialism.

Gifting can be a demonstration of Love.

It can be a tool of connection.

When I give to you freely, I am recognizing that we are connected. And when I receive joy from your joy, I am experiencing a form of unconditional love.

In fact, I often use the example of Xmas morning as a perfect example of Gifting. When a child tears open a gift and squeals in joy, they experience a plus 1. When you get joy from seeing them so happy, YOU experience a plus 1.

But that isn’t always what happens on Xmas morning. Too often you see a kid tear open a gift only to see their angry little face exclaim, “This isn’t the one I wanted!”

Unfortunately, this is what can happen when Gifting becomes transactional.   A receiver has a value expectation of the exchange and too easily feels like cheated customer – instead a delighted loved one.

When the Buddha talked about the suffering caused by attachment to outcome, he may have been talking about Lego sets on Xmas morning.

The key is to re-set and eliminate expectations so that every interaction can be enjoyed as a gift.

This same exercise is important on the Playa.

Occasionally we experience this at my camp during our annual Vegan Ice Cream Social. People will wait in line and have an expectation that sours the experience.

Too many times I’ve seen someone handed an ice cream cone just to have them jerk their hand away and curtly say, “I don’t want that flavor.”

Every heard the phrase “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth?” Yeah, that is a terrible expression. But it does kill the gifting magic when you are overly critical of a gift. Learning to be a good receiver is soooo important.

There is nothing wrong with preferring chocolate. But let me offer a suggested way to express the sentiment while still remembering that this is a gifting experience: “Thank you! I’m actually a huge chocolate lover. Would it be a hassle to get a chocolate one? Then I (or you) can gift this to someone else?”

Then, no matter what the answer is, “Thank you for bringing ice cream to the desert!”


The graduate level practice of this is to remove the transactional expectation from things that actually are transactional.

“Wow! Thank you for bagging all my groceries up!”

“Why, yes, I would like a refill on root beer. That is so nice of you!”

“It is my turn and you are going to let me merge? Awww! Thank you!”

Suddenly the world is filled with abundance and you are the recipient of constant treasures.

So, good luck this holiday season! May you demonstrate the magic of true Gifting and experience Christmas miracles every day.


About the author: John "Halcyon" Styn


Halcyon is a 21-year Burning Man participant and co-founder of Pink Heart camp. He is author of "Love more. Fear less." and producer of the Burning Man short film, "The Pink Path." He's won Webby awards for his over-the-top personal site & his "Love On Demand" video podcast Halcyon co-founded the San Diego based "1st Saturdays" homeless outreach program based on Burning Man Principles and coaches people how to be radically self expressed in the default world. You can find his full Playa Tips & Tricks series at

12 Comments on “Gifting vs. Gift Exchange

  • Frederick Heald says:

    “If I have to give you a gift, then that is not a gift. It is a transaction.”

    What about “Free gift with purchase”?

    (Thanks, Halcyon!)

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  • Syd says:

    Frederick, if you have to buy something to get a “gift”, it isn’t a gift. The seller has either included the price of the “gift” into the cost of whatever else is available for purchase, or is using the “gift” as bait to lure people into the transaction who would otherwise have bypassed it.

    And if that was sarcasm, never mind… :)

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  • X says:

    Do as the BMORG, I’m just grifting this season!

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  • Nomad says:

    A wise man I knew used to say: “If I give you a dollar, and you give me a dollar, we have gained nothing. But if I give you an idea and you give me an idea, we have both gained an idea.”

    An idea is not as tangible as a pair of socks or a tie, but it can be far more valuable. And in that way art and creative expression is a gift that can be very powerful. Picasso’s Guernica is one example of creative art that has made a difference to many, in the past, and the present.

    In these ways art and creativity have some of the highest values that can ever be received.

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  • Admarz says:

    Wow, what a beautiful and thoughtful story on how to truly give in a “real” way. May your yule log burn bright this holiday season, Halcyon… You rock!

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  • Janau says:

    Would volunteering at Burning Man be a gift of yourself? Is it still a gift if the recipient of that gift uses it to profit financially in various strategic ways? That seems to me to be cynical exploitation of the giver who expects nothing in return except perhaps a pat on the head. Is that pat on the head actually the other half of the transaction that turns the gift into asset to be bartered?

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  • It was on fire when I got here says:

    The giver receives by giving.

    You either get it or you don’t.

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  • Halcyon – You nailed here. I realized a long time ago that when I’m pleasant and don’t make demands with people (I mean other than the minimum expected, politely) I actually have better service in restaurants or stores with the added benefit of making people around me happy. It goes along with the saying, the best way to be happy is to make someone else happy.

    It works every time.

    Its a good feeling to give someone something I don’t need to someone who will use it, be it a Gore-Tex cycling jacket or my last cookie. (I like to give the first cookie from the package to people, saying “the first one tastes the best.”)

    Janau – I volunteer at Media Mecca — hopefully this will be my fourth time — not out of love for Burning Man, but to be of help to my peers in the media with their projects. True, we get fed very well and there are the coolers full of cool, frosty beverages. I volunteer to talk to the photographers, writers, videographers from all over the world, to hear their stories and their ideas. It’s more fun than it may seem.

    I also volunteer for the media department the rest of the year on a much smaller scale keeping an eye out for intellectual property problems, which I forward to the people who actually handle it. (There is a reason Walmart doesn’t have a “Burning Man sale,” for example).

    I volunteer to do my part in building Black Rock City, and taking it down. My contribution is small, but it’s a good feeling to be part of that small camping trip in Nevada. And, I get to hang out with Caveat and Munney.

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  • Thank you, Brian. For your comments AND your service. “…the best way to be happy is to make someone else happy.” So simple…and so right on.

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  • Fido says:

    @Super Evil Brian

    >keeping an eye out for intellectual property problems

    The Kool Aid is strong with you.

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  • So here I sit reveling in you. I’ll be doing something enjoyable next August, but it won’t be Burning Man, and to some extent, after 10 consecutive years on the Playa, that’s been bumming me out. Until now. You, Halcyon, just gifted me with the ideas, concepts, cleansing hugs, breaths, and wisdom I needed now so that I can be at peace with whatever will happen next year. Yes: I’ll miss the vegan ice cream, the Jazz Cafe, the Flaming Lotus Girls, Center Camp, another Fun House, being a greeter, a masseur, a singer, and so much more. But also yes: I’ll have all those gifts already given to me and in my mind so that I can transfer their memories or some equivalent substance to other folks, many of whom have never even heard of Burning Man, and it will be just fine. I’ll look forward to 2016 rather than 2015 for my next Burning Man experience. I still remember when I spoke to you a couple years ago at your camp and thanked you for all you do, and I thank you again now for all you keep doing for our community. Have a blessed holiday!

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  • Halcyon says:

    Thank you, Gerald. That means alot to hear. And I’m happy to hear that you are heading out into the world as an ambassador! Love warriors are needed more than ever. We’ll be waiting for your return (and recharge) in 2016. ((HUG))!

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