Anthropologists have looked into the matter of gift giving as a universal feature in human societies. In primitive societies, some of the reasons for it can be found in the establishment of bonds of kinship. Lévi-Strauss stressed the importance of the prohibition of incest in human societies as a way of making women available for “trade” by men of their tribe with men belonging to other tribes, more than as a way to ward off physical deformity or psychological damage. This was his particular extension of Marcel Mauss’s theories in “The Gift” (1925), which emphasized the symbolic rather than economic value of gifts exchanged.
Now, how do this apply to our society and our circumstances today, as we get ready for this Valentine’s social obligation? I understand that in Anglo-Saxon countries the Valentine gifts go to lovers and friends. In my country, Spain, it used to be for couples only, although due to the cultural influence exerted by the USA through TV sitcoms, some (especially kids) feel compelled to spend twice the money/effort/time. When I was a child, the only thing we did was to laugh at those who were dressed in red in St. Valentine’s Day, because it meant that they were in love, and we used to chase them in order to kiss them (they tried to escape, of course, that was the fun of it).
Nowadays, in adult terms, I find that gift giving is a double edge sword. What should we do with gifts? Ideally I was very much for personal gifts, and I try and make them myself, at least for the ones whom I regard as special people. But I’m afraid the chances to put my foot on it are similar. All the effort and love that you invest may not be appreciated, and I have seen some of such personal gifts been cornered or discarded. Some people are used to expensive stuff or high quality goods and as you are involved in a relationship, they feel free to give their opinion which is not always directly proportional to what you have invested love-wise. Should we just go to a shop and buy stuff with the little money that we have in these turbulent times of economical crisis? The stuff we buy may just be equally discarded… What to do then? I have always thought that a good criteria for gift giving is taking into consideration your lover/friend/relative’s tastes, hobbies & fields of expertise. My mother is always happy to receive some Black&Decker device for her birthday.
You can also bear in mind your own strong points: I paint as a hobby, and sometimes I give a painting as a present. Another possibility is a practical gift, although it is not valid for everyone, some people prefer to be the receivers of a frivolous object they do not really need, or would prefer to be given something that otherwise they would not acquire, like something “luxurious” (SPA bonus, massage, expensive perfume). I was very happy to receive a set of moulds for cakes last year.
The negative aspect of personal gifts is that if the thing you are giving away is criticized, it feels personal too. I was able to experience this not long ago and it made me rethink all my policy with this kind of stuff. Also, there are gifts that get too personal: once I received the book “The Whore’s Son” (I happen to have a son) by Richard Russo as a birthday present. I was astonished. As an explanation, the one who bought it for me, told me that it was a very famous author that she heard me talk about. I could not recall the moment when I was supposed to have mentioned Richard Russo at all. It was the very first time that I heard about him, but that person insisted through flattering my literary knowledge (as Freud’s saying goes, we are defenceless when it comes to flattery, or at least that is what that person might have thought). I have always seen that book as a show of hostility towards me (I know very well that person and she is capable of such a “detail”), and I do not like much its presence.
To sum up, I think I will change my policy towards gifts and stop gift giving and taking altogether.