Presents: the real meaning of Christmas

Christmas, a time of being patronisingly berated for your failure to grasp the real meaning of the season. If it hasn’t happened to you in some form by the 24th, you might as well knock down the tree and use the cinnamon-scented candle to set fire to your wreath: you’re just not having a proper Noël without a bit of sanctimony to spice the joyeux.

Don’t worry, though, because I’ve got three cloves of moralising right here to swirl through the mulled wine of your advent. Not going to a carol service? Failing to reflect sufficiently on economic injustice and political injustice? Daring to think about the giving and receiving of presents? Then you, my sorry friend, are missing the real meaning of Christmas. Now suck on a sprout and think about what a consumerist monster you are.

Except, what if presents really are the meaning of Christmas and everything else — the twinkly lights, the singing, the Nativity — is just an especially rich and delicious gravy to the nourishing materialist meat of the festivities? I’m not saying this as a shill for the CBI, who must be properly bricking it given the failure of Britain to go shopping this December; to be honest, they’ll probably find me a disappointing advocate, given that I don’t think your gifts have to be particularly lavish or spectacular.

But they are essential, and not just to Christmas but to the foundations of human civilisation. Think about this: out of all the animals to have evolved, humans are the only ones to understand and practise generosity. Sure, some species ritually offer prey to a potential mate, but as anthopologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy says, “humans stand out for their chronic readiness to exchange small favours and give gifts”. (Something observed from the elaborate potlatch ceremonies of hunter-gatherer societies, to your own Christmas card list; although interestingly the habit of regifting, despised by us, is actually compulsory is some traditions.)

Securing social bonds
For Hrdy, the ability to give, and to take pleasure in giving, is part of the distinctly human trait of “intersubjectivity”: that is, being able to imagine another person’s feelings and experience them in some degree as if they were our own. In her account, this is the basis of the remarkable co-operative tendencies that humans have, even with those outside their immediate social group, and it might be the primary reason that we’ve been able to avoid extinction in the toughest evolutionary times.


All societies have customs of giving that help to secure social bonds — ours just happens to have adhered to the subsequent traditions of Christianity. Or maybe there’s more to it than calendrical convenience: when German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach attempted to reconcile Christianity with an undeniably materialist universe in the 19th century, he too fixed on the idea of intersubjectivity as peculiarly human. “Man is himself at once I and thou; he can put himself in the place of another,” he wrote.

The conception of God could be understood as a communal metaphor, used by humans to capture our simultaneous I-ness and thou-ness. If Christmas is all about God becoming man — one entity living and feeling as another — then it’s the ultimate celebration of intersubjectivity, the trait that induces our special powers of present-giving.

So slap on the bows and write out the name tags with a clear conscience: you’re not just embodying the real real meaning of Christmas with every selection box you hand out — your ability to give is the beating heart of humanity. —

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