It’s Potlatch Season—The Celebration Of All Things Material

Is gift giving during Christmas and Hanukkah a wasteful practice by which we just crave status from friends and family? Is it a harmless, even joyful, practice to bestow goodwill and joy on the ones we love? Is it a giant commercial venture by which retailers encourage us to part with dollars in an orgy of gift giving by folks who ought to be guarding their earnings rather than spending? Is it a necessary part of our economy that drives production and wealth? Is it a religious act? Or is it a joyous celebration of the material, which, when you think about it, is a celebration of life.

In my house Christmas is a much looked forward to event where we decorate our home and tree, enjoy the company of our friends and family, (hopefully) experience a change of season with crisp weather here in sunny Santa Barbara, buy gifts, and do quite a bit of eating, drinking, and merrymaking.

There ought to be a special time of the year when we can celebrate. Not being religious, I can celebrate many things: my family, my health, my friends, the changing weather, the parties, and giving things as well. It’s fun. Christmas is one of our most important seasons since it really lasts for a month as we roll into New Year.

I always found the idea of giving gifts to family, friends, and even strangers an odd thing. Why do we do it? I love gift-giving, don’t get me wrong. I think it comes down to celebration. It makes us feel good to make others feel good. It is part of the joy of life which is why we celebrate. It is also a celebration of our material well being.

Almost all societies throughout time have celebrations that involve gift-giving. The native peoples of the Northwest had potlatch which was an elaborate celebration where one clan would prepare gifts, sometimes it took years to put it together, and hold a big party for another clan and bestow them with the entire output. Their point was to gain status and was seen as a religious observance. There was no quid pro quo, but it put the giftees in the position of having to reciprocate or lose status. It would sometimes impoverish the donor clan, but status was more important.

Almost all of these holidays and celebrations take place in the winter. The Romans called it Saturnalia. They too gave gifts (on December 23). The reasons are ancient and coincide with the winter solstice, that time when days become longer and there is the promise of new growth and rebirth. Clever folks our ancestors. It was a good thing to celebrate once they figured out seasonality because it made their lives predictable and they could make longer term plans for hunting and farming. This planning enabled them to create greater material wealth for themselves, which enabled and ennobled their lives.

I am not sure our ancestors would recognize our gift-giving potlatch season. People go nuts. As far as I can tell, it has little to do with religion anymore as people are more concerned with shopping, wrapping, credit card bills, and partying. Most folks, I read, spend the rest of the year paying off their credit card bills.

America is the worst, or best, depending how you look at it. Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations represent more than one-third of annual sales for retailers. We are bombarded with advertisements for all that glitters. New TVs sail out the doors. Perfumers and jewelers have the greatest sales of the year. Trust me there is no religious quality to shopping. Much less the TV ads. How about the perfume ad for Dolce + Gabbana where the young stud in a white Speedo hops out of the water followed by a beautiful woman, and, as they embrace, the guys is untying her top. “Cut.” Hmmm. Crass indeed.

Critics of this behavior decry it as gross materialism. We miss, they say, the significance of whatever religious observance they think is more important. Furthermore, it’s just wasteful.

I disagree.

It is fundamental to our human, social nature to celebrate. The critics are correct that it is materialistic, but there is nothing crass about materialism. The real reason to celebrate is because we see a future of possibilities that will bring us more material goods. Solstice is the origin, but for us here in America, seasons don’t have much to do with anything anymore unless you are a farmer. We celebrate because we have material things that make our lives better. We have food in abundance, clothing of infinite varieties, machines that do our work for us, homes with furnishing to keep us warm, gadgets and electronics that make our lives easier and more fun, beautiful automobiles and other means to get us anywhere we wish to go, tools of learning for any subject, unlimited entertainment, a medical system that keeps us well. This is the material world and it is good. We ought to take time out to celebrate mankind’s progress and our well being.

I know what you cynics out there will say. Yeah, fine for you, but people go hungry and are homeless, folks can’t afford medical care, people are trapped in poverty, the elderly suffer, education is expensive, the cost of living too high … To quote the great Seinfeld, yada, yada, yada. Get a life if you don’t have one and celebrate what we have, not what we don’t have.

There is one thing I have learned that has given me some degree of success and that is you have to get out of bed every morning and think and do something positive. If you look at the world in a negative way, you won’t get out of that bed figuratively (maybe literally too). You have to be optimistic about the future and your life and think of the possibilities you can achieve. If you think a material life isn’t a reason to celebrate, think about why you are alive and the material things that got you here.

If you criticize our annual celebration of the material, then you are denying your own human nature and its capacity for success and joy. Just look around you and celebrate.


PS. Merry Christmas.



7 comments to It’s Potlatch Season—The Celebration Of All Things Material

  • Bryan

    Hear, hear… Merry Christmas Jeff.

    Think about what you can do… Not what you didn’t.

  • D

    Edward Bernays would be proud of you.

  • Not being religious?

    I hear that a lot from the occasional agnostic or atheist, but also from people who are apparent Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists. They, for the greatest, part only mean that they don’t genuflect in church or bless the food before eating.

    But, as my dad said who was captured in a firefight in WWII and spent 222 days “as a guest of the German govt”, “there are no atheists in foxholes”. He was in need of some food in winter after leaving prison camp (left when Germans abandoned it near the end of the war) and was shared the scant food of 2 escaped Italian soldiers. My mother died a year ago and, once again, like at the birth of my three sons, I was reminded heavily that there is more to life than the material world we see. Whenever I feel the urge to give some needed item or funds to those who don’t have enough, and I say “If I don’t help, who?”, that is the God of man, whomever we all think that is, putting his hand on my shoulder.

    Christmas shouldn’t be a time of exchanging just candy and sweaters, but sharing our material gifts with friends and those who can genuinely need what we give. Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah.

  • mak

    Jeff…I recall as a child vibrating, waiting for santa…
    children, as a whole are not religious..we just want santa to bring us stuff.
    this is fine except we, as parents, have gone to far in the giving. Jeff, you said it best when you said, buying gifts and spending the rest of the year paying them off….pretty dumb I would say. Merry Chritmas to all.

  • dd

    i say baa hum bug.

    gifts are a wonderful thing, but watching the masses deplete their savings, or add to their borrowing, to acquire material goods and things they don’t need, to me that is just another extension of our consumption driven society.

    “let them eat gifts” — the middle class is being destroyed by policy, the youth annihilated with student loans and no jobs, and they are being allayed things, consumption-driven gifting so they won’t fight back. back to sleep debt serfs.

    i will not speak to anecdotes, plenty of people do it right or have the wealth to do what they want, and they don’t ask for help when the go bust. that’s the minority. in the aggregate, gifting and consumption are way overdone. transfer payments should be used to offset mortgage and student loan debt, or a college fund, not more consumption.

    this is how societies crumble, and ours is — the youth will bear the brunt of it, it’s just getting warmed up. most of the wealth will be in the hands of very few, and mostly very old, when this all comes down.

    sorry to be the Grinch but Christmas is over and i’m more concerned with truths than holidays. someone has to be the Scrooge.

  • dd

    Jeff, i don’t understand how it’s good when one clan impoverishes itself for status? wasn’t that what happened in the USA with the housing / credit bubble?

    i don’t know … i’m not saying all gifts are bad, but i’m struggling with this one.

  • Rapscallion

    WOW ! I was all in sync with what Jeff had to say and then I read some of the comments…Whoa….did I miss something? So, I went back and read it again. This time I didn’t read the comments.
    Christmas seems to be the only time of the year when we actually celebrate as a species around the world. One time a year when the majority of the population are just looking for a breather from the stress of the rest of the year and the upcoming new one.
    Who cares how it is reached…..home-made or bought or given or eaten, as long as there is just that one moment when you can say,”you know what? I feel good!” That feeling can take you through the next 52 weeks, so you can feel it again.
    Life is hard, boys and girls, and any respite is welcomed!