How Burning Man Ruined Xmas

NOTE: I recognize that Christmas is based on a Christian holiday and therefore not Radically Inclusive. However, in this rant I am speaking to the non-religious traditions, iconography and marketing that are a deeply pervasive part of United States culture.

You would think that Burning Man, with it’s Gifting Principle, would have enhanced my appreciation of Christmas.
In fact, did you know that the very first theme camp was Christmas-based? Complete with a tree, Santa, and a staged family blowup fight.
But this year, I found myself struggling to embrace the Christmas season more than ever. Specifically the Gifting aspect.

I would be cruising through a store, see some item and think, “I could give that to my sister in law.”
I didn’t think, “my sister in law would love that!” I was only interested in fulfilling my gifting obligation.
And if it is an obligation, it ain’t no gift!
I’m not even sure we should call it a “Holiday gift Exchange.” If you are required to exchange items. That is a transaction. That is barter. Maybe we should call it, “Holiday Barter”?

But all that focus on consumerism at holiday time is not the fault of Burning Man.

How Burning Man ruined Xmas for me was in the deeper understanding of Gifting.
Gifting isn’t about giving someone a thing. It is about adding to their life in some way.

It is fine to give a plastic bracelet. That is like Gifting training wheels. It is a gesture saying, “I am giving you a gift!”
But the true magic of gifting comes when you start to see gifting as the act of elevating someone’s experience. That can be done by giving them a thing…in fact I know many people who have a near-mystical ability to find gifts that are immensely personal and thoughtful. But Burning Man has taught me that the deepest expressions of Gifting are when we use our talents, time, and attention to help, inspire, or connect deeper with someone.

Plus, I have been inspired by so many amazing eco-conscious Burners that I now feel twinges of guilt when I buy frivolous plastic stuff.

This year, as the 25th of December approached. I was less prepared for our family gift exchange than I have ever been. When the Amazon Prime 2-day delivery deadline passed, I knew I was screwed.

But I remembered my Grandpa. And how he used to donate to on behalf of his grandkids. He would buy goats or chickens for impoverished communities around the world in our name.

So I bought a cow.
And then when my nephew opened up the package that had the explanation printout inside, I announced that in-addition to the donation on our behalf, I wanted to share a meal with each of them over the next year. Hopefully I can get to know their lives well enough that I can think of the perfect gift next Christmas.

P.S. For more thoughts on Gifting, check out this video.

P.P.S. My Family has a fun tradition of leaving NSFW letters to Santa. You can check them out at

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

8 Comments on “How Burning Man Ruined Xmas

  • Thanks for this gift of insight.

    Could make surprise packing for the presents.

    Non physical, but ShoutingFire has a gift in return DJs from BMIR all give their seasonal best music.

    Love, Live and Make next time to all

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  • Rat Lady says:

    My Grandfather was on the first Heifer Project ship to leave the US with livestock to gift to farmers whose stock had been decimated by the War. It’s a great organization! We also every year got a “In your name a cow or goat or duck was donated to a needy Farmer. The really neat thing is that the farmers cannot use that animal for meat and it’s first offspring must be donated to another farmer under the same condition.

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  • Sunny Dacklin says:

    You explained gifting perfectly. I loved your video and that is really cool history Rat Lady. I love you and all of mobility camps efforts (Shrugs told me.)

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  • roissy says:

    I would not say: “Burning Man Ruined Xmas” like the majority of people you got caught up in the whole Christmas “gifting” thing, and as you realized is not really gifting, but a way to assuage guilt from receiving something and not having gifted something in return…
    I found myself caught up in this a few years before BM. After realizing this I announced to my family I was no longer giving gifts for Christmas so I did not expect anything in return. The first year I am not sure anyone believed me because I did receive gifts, which I accepted and thanked them. The following years they learned, but now it has freed up the holiday to almost no stress and I might surprise them with something they could use or a task during the year. That, in turn, freed me up for when BM came around I could accept gifts without out feeling obligated to give something back, in turn, I have skills I utilized on Playa that I do not expect a return on…

    Maybe we should turn away from gifting for Christmas and take on “Singles Day”…

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  • Debbie De Long says:

    You are such an inspiration thank you for sharing Love You too

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  • Well said.. I’ve been trying to break my mother of this guilty need to give me something on Christmas. No matter how pointless, she can’t help herself from buying some token. I keep telling her “Save your money and visit..I’d much rather spend time with you than have stuff”.

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