How embarrassed you were today

Last questions: How can you avoid the Christmas armament spiral of giving and receiving presents?

So shortly before Christmas, of course, we have to talk about giving. You have probably already groaned today about what you have to get hold of in the next few days. You have probably already bought quite a few gifts. At the same time, however, you have presumably also announced that you will “shut things down” this year, only to give little things or even nothing more - and above all that you do not want to receive anything for free yourself. Every year again. These contradicting modes of behavior and expression already indicate what different, even contradicting interests, desires and meanings are associated with giving.

The French philosopher Georges Bataille coolly stated in the 1940s that "a gift would be nonsensical (...) if it did not have the meaning of a purchase". And further: "Giving will mean acquiring a power." Those who spend themselves in giving, do so not only out of love, but also in the - often unacknowledged - hope of committing themselves to the recipient. In this respect, Christmas in particular is a festival at which the existing social order is confirmed or reorganized: You consolidate the ties to family members and friends and signal recipients for the first time that you would like to have closer contact with them.

It is well known that companies and retailers are taking advantage of the opportunity to create even more customer loyalty through gifts. Sometimes even an unexpected or original Christmas greeting is enough: The one who receives it receives a favor that he can never return, because his counter-greeting lacks the surprising, even the appearance of a spontaneous gesture. So he feels permanently in the debt of the other person - and is more inclined to buy something from him again and again.

If gifts already reveal an occupational dimension here, this only becomes manifest when they turn out to be too large. Then the recipient can feel threatened and put under pressure: He feels the interest of the other in making him dependent on himself. Perhaps such a gift then fails to serve its purpose because the recipient keeps a distance out of fear of being determined by others.

If, on the other hand, a gift is only slightly oversized, it is most effective: The giver can then be fairly certain that he has embarrassed the other and also intimidated them a little. So he can expect that the recipient will return the favor with a gift that is at least as large, but at the same time feel permanent gratitude towards him. A variant of potlatch threatens here - a ritual in which one wants to subjugate the other through generous gifts and tries to buy oneself again through even more generous gifts.

It is the dynamic of such an armament spiral of giving that leads many people to wish for a reduction or even an exit from Christmas consumerism, but which at the same time makes it impossible for them to really renounce giving and giving in return. In fact, it increases the power - the perplexing and thus intimidating effect - of a gift even if the giver has previously proclaimed that this time he wants to be moderate.

Senseless gifts are also particularly aggressive. They signal to the recipient that it was not a question of choosing something that was precisely fitting for them and thus taking them seriously as an individual; Rather, the giver wanted above all to prove his purchasing power - potency - and by giving something that was useless he wanted to draw attention all the more clearly to the fact that he could afford not to pay close attention to its use value. As with exaggerated gifts, giving here is synonymous with wasting.

It is no coincidence that, of all things, a festival that was originally religious, such as Christmas, has become a festival of consumption, a potlatsch of the affluent society. After everyone has once again felt the distress of giving and receiving presents, even after having experienced yourself powerless in the turbulent and massive cycle of gifts, you can feel confirmed in the good old suspicion that the material - money and goods - not just not makes you happy, but even means a burden. In excessive consumption, an affluent society strengthens its resentment towards this very thing - and holds its own sermon.

It is only as a result of discomfort or even panic at everything that lies under the Christmas tree that people today praise the spiritual and the transcendent as the “real” values. Only those who have sinned can also be purified.

WOLFGANG ULLRICH