Embracing Gifting by Ditching Obligatory Present-Giving

Holiday gift-giving has gone off the rails, if you ask me. To stay sane this holiday season, it is critical to remember what we learned at Burning Man about the Principle of Gifting.

NOTE: While many holidays have beautiful traditions during this season, I’m going to speak specifically to the general concept of holiday gift exchange, simply because it dominates the media, store windows, street decorations, radio airwaves…

A large percentage of the entire year’s retail purchasing happens during end-of-the-year holiday sales. Retailers know this, so they advertise like crazy to get some of your sweet, sweet holiday present budget. We are assaulted with messaging about the expectations and obligations of holiday gifts.

As soon as folks living in the US have digested their Thanksgiving turkey, the holiday shopping stress begins. “I need to find a gift for Mom, Dad, Joey, Aunt Lucy, and everyone on my list.” Meanwhile, Mom, Dad, Joey, and Aunt Lucy are stressing out about what to give you.

Mutually assured frustration is NOT what Gifting is about.

This is where our Burning Man training comes in. This “gift-giving” tradition is not Gifting. If I have to give you a gift, it isn’t a gift. It is a transaction. “Present exchange” seems like a more accurate description.

Kitty van Stein gifts snacks with Burning Man Doc Team photographer Bill Klemens at Center Camp, 2019 (Photo credit: Susan C. Becker)

I don’t mean to be a Grinch. Exchanging presents can still be a nice tradition. It just lacks magic. Sorta like how kissing someone in a game of “Spin the Bottle” can still be nice, but it lacks the magic of touching lips with someone who isn’t kissing you because they have to.

Have you ever been given a mass-marketed gift card on your birthday? Did your eyes light up as you clapped with joy? Probably not. A gift card on your birthday is often the physical representation of: I owe you a gift.

That being said, a gift card out of the blue can be a legitimate gift. So, what’s the difference? Any gesture of giving, no matter how small, can be significant if it “does not contemplate a return or an exchange.” Giving a gift when it is not required transcends the transactional relationships that rule our society.

A true gift is motivated by the goal of making someone’s moment, day, or life better. A transaction, on the other hand, is motivated by the desire to balance the ledger. 

Herein lies the key in restoring the magic to holiday gift exchanging: check your motivation.

Are you scrolling endlessly looking for something to buy for Aunt Lucy just because? You’re in transactional mode. Instead, take a moment to think about Aunt Lucy. What would make her moment, day or life better? It may still be something you quickly purchase online. Or it could be a sincere personal note. A hand-drawn card. A plate of gluten-free, sugar-free cookies. A used book that you enjoyed. Ideally, find creative gifts that won’t create excess fodder for landfills.

I would argue that a personal note and no gift is preferable to a stress-purchased gift of obligation. Really want to nail the ethos of gifting? Try giving them something a couple months later for no reason at all.   

This shift in perspective doesn’t just enhance the recipient’s experience, it magnifies the gift-giver’s as well. Instead of an exchange with a balanced leger, you have two people happier than they were before. This is the magic of gifting that our modern consumer frenzy has taken away, and it’s the magic that I hope we can all get back to this holiday season.

Now, gift me some figgy pudding!

Photo of homemade coupon provided by the author
Cover photo of hug sign at the Temple, photo by Jane Hu (2018)

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 HugNation.com. 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 www.PlayaPrinciples.com

8 Comments on “Embracing Gifting by Ditching Obligatory Present-Giving

  • Ginger says:

    We can’t hug with Covid. Those days are over.

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    • Carol C. says:

      Isn’t it sad? But while nothing can replicate the tactile sense of being held, I’m grateful for air hugs, heart emojis, smiles, greetings, being asked how I’m doing—even if the conversation is online or through a mask. It lifts my spirits to know someone cares. Call me an optimist, but I believe that hugs—and Burning Man—will be back in the near future.

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  • Ocelot says:

    I agree! This is the article I needed today, thank you

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  • Blair Golson says:

    I love this, John. I’m honestly never going to look at Christmas or birthdays the same way again. I’ve heard / read your thoughts on gifting before, but this just NAILS it in a way so pure that I can jut FEEL it sticking forever.

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  • VanToosh says:

    One year I gave imaginary presents to my family and close friends. It was great fun making them up to suit each individual – dog telepathy superpower for Kate the dog owner/lover; an instant teleport tunnel to Finland for my Finnish-but-UK-living sister-in-law; a giant bumble bee with a saddle on it’s back to fly my friend Beth around. That sort of thing. I wrote them out on handmade cards, they got a great response and were possibly the most enjoyable festive shop I’ve ever done!

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