What I Gave As Playa Gifts at My First Burn

When I was a virgin, locked in and packing for my first trip to the playa, a camp mate casually torpedoed me with, “Hey, think about what you’re gonna do for playa gifts.”

And there it was: my first experience with the Second Principle, and already baffled. I had never been to Burning Man before, and the whole concept of “playa gifts” was a bit vague to me. Was I expected to bring gifts for everyone? Just for the friends I was camping with? Were they supposed to be nice things they could treasure forever, or just a little tokens to give a moment’s joy? Would people appreciate my confused attempts, or snicker at the first-timer trying to fit in? I panicked a bit, then ignored the issue entirely, finally picked up a large bottle of excellent beer, and sat my virgin self down to figure this out. I came up with some guiding concepts that I still use today when I think to myself, “Self, would this make a good playa gift?”

The point of Gifting is not to lug physical goods out to a dry lake bed somewhere north of Reno. The point of Gifting is to manifest an economy built on the flow of goodwill and circulation of necessary items. It was clear that simply bringing things in order to give them away would miss the mark a bit. Instead, I had to figure out how to contribute to a gifting economy in a way that kept those juices flowing without bogging me — or anyone else — down. I wanted to stimulate the economy, as it was, in a way that actually helped improve this strange culture I was about to join.

So what did I bring? I figured it out eventually, but I learned some things in the process…

What’s in a Gift?

Hand-made trinkets make amazing gifts! But this isn’t the only kind of gift out there. (Photo by Geoff McCabe)
Hand-made trinkets make amazing gifts! But this isn’t the only kind of gift out there. (Photo by Geoff McCabe)

Gifts are neither transactions nor obligations. The principle of Gifting is about giving freely when you choose to give. We owe each other nothing, not even when you or I have just given a gift. Maybe especially not then. When something is given out of guilt, or in exchange, or in hopes of receiving something, it’s no gift. It’s a purchase, an apology, a thank-you, maybe a tribute or even a tithing. Give freely, and give deliberately. It’s okay not to give all the time. Objects handed out to fulfill a social contract cemented in the Ten Principles just lead to inflation of the gift economy anyway.

Sometimes we give gifts one-on-one, in a moment of human connection. We stop, we see each other, one gives a gift, and the other appreciates it. Other times, a gift is given to everyone — art for the masses, food fed to anyone walking by, stacks of stickers handed out by the fistful. Both approaches are wonderful and drive the community toward a future of plenty, but take the moment to appreciate the gift you’re giving for what it is.

Be generous with public gifts, and deny none, for these gifts’ beauty is in their plenty. These gifts are given without discrimination, simply because the recipient exists.

Savor the private ones — this is a personal moment. Give the gift, and also give the giving of the gift. More than anything, a gift says, “I am a human, and I see you, my fellow human. I am taking the time and making the effort to give you something.” Gifts are a passing of goods and services, but also a passing of intentions.

If I give a gift, I want it to pinch a bit. Sure, sometimes it makes sense to bring a large number of easy gifts, but sometimes it’s nice to give a gift that isn’t easy to give. A gift with a cost — time, money, sweat, emotions, hell, a bit of blood, whatever — is a difficult gift to give. Savor that. It’s not a gift given lightly. You will save it for a deserving soul. More importantly, you will know you gave that gift. You will remember that moment, and think back on it in months and years to come. Where is my gift now? Where is the person I gave it to? Do they still treasure it? Do they remember that moment the way I do?

Anselm's playa bike under construction
Anselm’s playa bike under construction

Gifts don’t need to be material. We all love the person with armfuls of gifts to give, but where did that leave me, the poor and mystified virgin? Terrified, that’s where. I had no idea what to give, where to buy stickers, how to make buttons, whither to acquire the trappings of gifting. Terror is not the ideal motivator of our Second Principle, nor should Gifting require a frantic shopping spree.

Gifting is not about handing out tchotchkes, it’s about giving someone something they desire. Focus on that, rather than the physical object, and you’ll be a happy gifter. Except stickers. Everyone loves stickers.

Gifts have no value other than the one we place on them. A good gift is something we want — or need — whether we know it or not, because it brings a flood of joy and a relief from… whatever it was that was going on, that you can’t even remember right now because this awesome person just gave you something totally bizarre and amazing and beautiful and it’s just what you wanted and didn’t even know!

My Favorite Gift I Ever Gave

The best gift I ever gave was a cheap, flashing gummy ring I ground-scored somewhere in the dust of deep playa. In a throbbing, flashing, rumbling mob of filthy souls and bicycles, I picked up the soon-to-be-gifted bit of blinking trash and wandered off toward the excellent sounds emanating from the Unimog. Not two minutes later, I stumbled across a fellow Burner deeply distressed that her bicycle had lost its tail light, and here she was, deep playa, no lights, the ultimate darkwad. So hey — I handed her the blinky. No sweat, it cost me nothing, and I certainly had no use for it, but in that moment, that person had one ultimate, all-encompassing desire, and I was able to give it to her. She wanted a blinky, and now she had one. The light in darkness, the tube for the bicycle, the sticker for the tearful child, the bacon in the morning, the the jumper cables at Exodus — those are excellent gifts that stimulate the economy.

I didn’t bring anything to give away my first year. Instead, I packed a box full of bicycle tools and put them to use. I kept the camp’s fleet in working order as a camp service and fixed countless bikes as personal gifts. Most were quick, easy — a loose screw, a flat tire, a seat adjusted. Others were more — a comfy chair, a cold beverage, a “how’s your day?”, and a pedal replaced or chain repaired. We had moments, the bikes and I, and their riders too. Immaterial, perhaps, even fleeting, but always wanted, always needed.

About the author: Anselm Engle

Anselm Engle

Anselm is a relative newcomer to the Burning Man scene (Burning since 2013), but a long-time citizen of liminal spaces everywhere. He thinks with his hands, believes specialization is a mistake, and makes the user support systems work at Burning Man Headquarters.

58 Comments on “What I Gave As Playa Gifts at My First Burn

  • I love this, sweetie. I remember that my first year I received some awkward gifts, and I gave some awkward gifts too.

    Some of the best gifts are super simple. A sincere and meaningful hug. A moment of real connection. A bite of something tasty.

    I don’t have this year’s gift sorted out yet, but I have to figure out something that won’t moop.

    Mostly I bring my heart and clear sight, and offer warm compassion. _Probably_ that’s enough. (Darn you, perfectionist brain!)

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  • Linda Harrison says:

    Great article. Very well put.

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  • Mark Harrison (SantaFrancisco) says:

    My first year I camped at the Deep End, and was a core bartender. I received so many cool necklaces and bracelets, fruit for drinks, ice from strangers, pins, stickers, and my favorite gift of all, a sincere smile :)

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  • Rusty says:

    I’ve taken a bunch of strings of battery powered lights (including batteries) and handed them out to people riding without lights at night. I considered it a gift to them and to everyone else trying not to hit anyone on the playa.

    I have also been gifted the loan of a golf cart at a couple of Burns and I always try to pick up people who are either headed in my general direction, carting something unwieldy, lost, exhausted or looking for the bikes they couldn’t find last night in the dark after dancing til dawn. I always meet great folks that way.

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  • Gary and Julie Estep says:

    Every year we bring apples and plums picked from the family orchard. By day three you would think we were giving away gold nuggets. Burners have plenty of opportunities for alcoholic refreshment, but not so much for fresh fruit. We have a desiccant bag handy for the fruit cores If folks want to sit and chat while they munch.

    We have also done pancake breakfasts for neighboring burners. I think this is year 12 for us. Don’t know how many more are ahead of us at age 80 now, but as long as I can be simultaneously vertical and lucid 92% of the time…… will be there!

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  • ShareBear says:

    This was an amazing article. Great share

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  • Miss harrop says:

    I gave a stick of Blackpool rock a speciality candy from Lancashire the county I was born in … x

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    • Janet Sprout says:

      You gave me one of those! It was one of the coolest Playa gifts in 7 years! I loved that you told me that is was a specialty of your home place. Thank you!

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  • Sarah and Carlos says:

    We tend to come over prepared. Last year loaned out our generator to our neighbor, a tarp to another neighbor that were virgins and didn’t bring shade, always loan out tools, but by far my favorite was tri tip we cooked on Friday. We gifted delicious cuts of tri tip to whomever was passing by and the thanks and reactions to burners who hadn’t had a bite of protein all week was so rewarding, we plan on doing it again.

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  • Dug says:

    I gifted condoms by the handful

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  • Lucila says:

    Hey this article is really really nice! i’m a virgin, this is my first year, and these words helped a lot!

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  • Jen Bee says:

    The truly given gift entails no loss. It is impossible that one can gain because another loses. God’s gifts will never lessen when they are given away. They but increase thereby. True giving is creation. –A Course in Miracles

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  • Sarah says:

    Amazing article made my virgin self feel so much better about gifting my first time at Burning Man!! Cannot wait for the burn to begin :)

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  • Dick de Vries says:

    Loved the article. Planning to go in 2017. As an creative free mind it’s on my list for many years now.
    Would love to get involved in the building up.

    Love and hugs
    Dickie

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    • Erich Laskowski says:

      2017 will be a very special year as there is a solar eclipse a week before the burn. The path of totality crosses central Oregon. just sayin….

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  • Amber says:

    One of the most amazing gifts I have been given was a handmade tiny pottery mug in sea green. It is truly a pice of art. But the best part was a long conversation with the man who made it as he flew a kits at the end of the playa, we talked for a long time about our families and people we’d met or lost over the years… All because I felt like going out to the edge of the playa by myself to check it out!! Day times are as great as nighttime!! And don’t be afraid to have some adventures alone, they are some of my most memorable:). Can’t wait to go back someday

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  • Rio says:

    We’ve been doing pins with a sunglass wearing smiley face on top of the Burning Man stick figure. Our favorite gift back was one day we were handing them out to folks in line in the hot sun at Arctica. We tried to hand some to a couple wearing Death Guild shirts. They took the pins and with disdain handed them back saying, “We’re from Death Guild. We don’t do smiley faces.” Ha. Loved it. Sometimes the best gift is simply a good story.

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  • Gerflash says:

    Your best gift is when you give of yourself, which you did. I often do, too. My main gift this year, for my own campers and beyond till they’re gone, I’m calling “Tools from Leonardo’s Tool Box.” Scissors, cutters, brushes, batteries, tape measures, gloves, magnetic bowls, and flashlites for the darkwads at nite. I collect ’em all year. They are free give-aways at a local tool store, but o so useful. Most of ’em, folks will see and take from a camp display. I’ll only be hauling the flashlites around at night for the benefit of the benighted.

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    • Hardon says:

      I’ve accepted light before. Last year I got super high and the batteries died in my headlamp and el wire on my backpack. I felt pretty stupid, not having spare batteries with me, and not being able to find my bike even though I knew where it was. Some nice guy gifted me light and I found my bike. Walked past it a few times though. Anyway, sometimes it’s decently prepared burners who need a light. That Leonardo’s box idea is clever.

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  • Hardon says:

    I didn’t really have handmade gifts, either, my first year. I ended up gifting electrolyte mix, water to lost people deep playa, two bottles of sunscreen to a camp that handed brought any, and a case of condoms to a camp that didn’t have enough. I also gifted myself. I changed people’s lives while they changed mine. I still don’t do the made gifts thing, though. My last burn I got a food permit and gifted a few hundred ears of cooked sweet corn. I was able to get a few camp members to help out last minute.

    I had to use a bike repair man’s help last year. I have to say, that is one hell of a good gift. If Wheels is out there, major props. Saved my ass; thank you so much. Fixed my wheel bearings.

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  • Fabielle Covington says:

    Absolutely loved this article My first time I gifted people coca leaves hard candy from my recently trip to Machu Picchu . it doesn’t get u buzzed, but definitely gives you energy, I figured after dancing all night and sleeping for few yours, coca candy should help

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  • Weezle says:

    I’m not really into the swag gifts often presented on the Playa. I get the intention, but after 6 years, have drawers full of stuff that just sits there. My first year I created a huge list of Jokes… some funny, some stupid, some raunchy, some cute. My gift was to tell some one a joke and make them smile! – This idea had unforeseen affects, I then handed the person the list of jokes and asked them to tell me one. The joy in their faces reading thru to find the “perfect” joke was a treasure. I still bring that same list to the Playa every year since.

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  • The Backwoodsman says:

    A blinky gummy ring! I know the type. When me and my husband had a playa wedding, someone gave us two rings just like that. Things kind of spun out, and we lost each other and woke up on different sides of the playa. Somehow, in the confusion, we had both lost our rings…

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  • Shepherd says:

    I once joined an unbalanced volleyball game (great gift bringing the net) having noticed that one team was short a person and at the end of it one of my impromptu teammates pulls a handful of compasses out of his camelbak and shares them with us. When we opened them, the dial had been replaced with a map of the city.

    Line up the hair and the notch in the eyepiece with The Man and the line on the glass is over your exact location on the map! Worked from anywhere on the map that you could see The Man. Best gift I have ever seen handed out.

    But when you think about it, the entire city is gifted. The fact that it is there at all is due entirely to people’s gifts and the best thing you could do is participate! Explore and interact with everything. If someone poured themselves into an art piece for you to enjoy, share your enjoyment of it. Seeing that their work is enjoyed is the best gift you could give the artist.

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  • Steve says:

    Thanks for this post! It has given me some great ideas for my first Burn this year! Can’t wait for this unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience. See ya on the Playa!

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  • Corvus says:

    Especially for virgins, the best gift you can give is yourself. If you jump on the end of a flapping tarp to hold it still while your neighbor ties it back down, that’s a gift. If you help an artist put the finishing touches of her already-late piece, that’s a gift. If you go down to Recycle Camp and peddle your ass off on the crusher for an hour, that’s a gift. There will be plenty of opportunities for you to help your fellow burner with the gift of yourself.

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    • Infored says:

      Yes, VOLUNTEER! Then you can forget all about things, get deeper into BRC and meet more people than you would probably otherwise. 10 years ago I started volunteering and never looked back. Kazam. Great medicine for an tntrovert.

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  • Paul says:

    Last year was my first and also thought long and hard about what I would do to gift to the community. I remembered I had a tandem bike frame that I never built so I got all the parts I needed put it together with great lights and a 6ft flag off the back saying “TAXI” real big and just rode around giving people rides to wherever they wanted to go. I was shy and out of place the first couple days and it wasn’t until my 3rd day that I went out and I had more fun giving people rides than anything I did that week. Met people from all over the world and found it really made an impression on both me and the people I picked up.

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  • Stuart M says:

    Thank you for this!

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  • Ratty says:

    I gifted umbrellas. these were collected from the lost and found at my work. I sewd tule over them and trailing along behind. It was well received. I’ve been a burner at heart all my life and didn’t know it.

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  • El Tigre en Fuego! says:

    Good read. Good thoughts! I’ll toss out there that my first year I took out a bunch of mixers and left them at a few different bars towards the end of the week. Friends had tipped me off that bars spend first on alcohol and often run short on mixers. Worked for me.

    Another idea is to try to create a small art piece tied into the theme. When Cargo Cult was the theme I made and handed out iOwns (a representation of a certain device we’d form a cult around if it was taken away). And hey, if you received an iOwn, please e-mail iowntheiown at gmail (you know the rest). I’d love to hear your impressions now and whether it’s been burned. Cheers!

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  • Pixel says:

    Perhaps the finest gift I’ve received once took the form of a tiny glinting object, as some gifts do, but I think I may ultimately, to my chagrin, have misplaced that…

    It’s fineness resided though in how it was given, which involved a unique and memorable interaction, and I can only chuckle because *that* gift is un-misplaceable.

    Gifts that might be gone long before they’re forgotten are better than gifts that might be forgotten long before they’re gone.

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  • Partycurl says:

    This too was a wonderful article for me to read and the comments were just as helpful. This will the first burn for myself, husband and two dear friends. We have been going crazy trying to come up with an idea. However whether we do bring trinkets to gift, first we will give of ourselves in any way needed.

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  • Neha says:

    Reading a thoughtful and intelligent article on gifting at Burning Man……and then reading that it was written by my old friend Anselm……..now that’s a gift!

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  • JIm says:

    I don’t think virgins should bring gifts. Just come, enjoy… give the gift of participating. No one is expecting a gift from you. No one is going to look down at you for not being f’ing Santa Claus. ;-) Just show up, smile at folks, help out when help is needed, and otherwise join the reindeer games. Too often virgins feel obligated to gift and the gifts are just random trinkets they bought in bulk at Walmart. Not really the point (as the article points out). I think it usually takes a year or two to really understanding what ‘gifting’ means in practice. Usually it just means being nice to people, nothing physical required. If you have something that you think would be meaningful to the person in front of you… so much the better.

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  • Positron says:

    Nice! Hugs!! Love!!!

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  • FS says:

    You are a beautiful writer and human!

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  • Vicky says:

    I love all the ideas. We are bringing a small car that has paint peeling. We invite everyone to help make it artistic. We are bringing sandpaper, paint brushes and paint. Everyone is invited to come have some fun being an artist and help paint the car. If you see us, just come join in. I am 62 and my 23 year old daughter asked me to come on this trip. What an adventure!

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  • Chaps says:

    This is a great read and I’m happy to see that as a Virgin Burner, my genuine smile and perhaps some awesome hugs will suffice as my gift to my fellow citizens of BRC.
    Chaps~

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  • ninadesigner says:

    My first year I did not bring gifts, or so I thought. Camped at 3:30 & J . A hot extra dusty corner. I had a 12 x 20 shade structure, and invited anyone who looked like they needed a break from the sun, to come in, sit down & have a drink. It took me a few days to realize I was giving the gift of Shade.

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  • Lana aka Pink says:

    The first gift I received at my first Burning Man was a blinky ring!
    Other favorite things received were a massage, a Klondike bar late in the week, and serendipitous meetings.
    Favorite gifts I gave were banana bread, a light for a darkwad, hugs when needed, an umbrella to someone who had a corneal abrasion to help with the harsh light, and ice chips to people in the long ice lines.

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  • Pioneer says:

    On the way to the playa on my first burn we stopped at Pyramid Lake to as a place to chill in the RV and wait for the gates to open. Near the lake edge we found fellow burners who failed to heed the signs about staying on the pavement with their wheels stuck in the deep gravel. We hooked a chain to the chassis of our RV and their hitch, and after several difficult tries tries pulled them back onto the pavement. We introduced ourselves and drove on to the playa having already made some friends. Several days later, Wednesday I think, one of the people that we rescued from the gravel at Pyramid Lake comes to my camp, finds my RV, and gives me a tiny dropper bottle. It was minty fresh and was just the gift we needed to get us into the true joy of the burn and was my favorite playa gift, ever.

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    • Robyn says:

      Hi Pioneer…that’s a great story. We are a couple from Florida, virgin burners. Looking for an RV without getting taken to the bank just because it’s for BM. Any suggestions? Thank you:)

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  • Louis Christie says:

    This being my first Burn Knocking on 70 years old, my Grand daughter told me at X mass you are to come with us to Burning Man 2016. The love she shows and gives out to people is amazing. Then I found out later her DAD is to come also. He and I are overwhelmed at this great experience and to be in a large Camp also with a smaller camp in side of the large camp WOW. Looking for lot a of love to give out and receive.

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  • I already have received one of the best gifts ever by being invited by my son Gabriel to join him and about 60 of his best friends at Burningman 2016, my first time ever! The gift is only growing with my excitement and anticipation as I review Burningman.org, something my son has insisted daily that I do (he knows thatI can be the world’s worst procrastinator)! The post on Gifting and the replies are thoughtful and beautiful. I will share of myself to these muchachos and this will be my gift to them and also back to me since genuine affection and mutual respect is two-way road of giving and receiving.

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