From the pages of
The Sublette County Journal
Volume 5, Number 18 - 12/28/00
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Grand Old Traditions

by Russell Nelson

I have a friend from back east- Indianapolis, though I worked with her in Italy on a Roman site one season, who is the queen of Recycle. Cans, jars, newspapers are all just practice: she is living proof that there are only one or two fruitcakes, which have been circulating for decades. She lives in the present, but works in a temporal continuum that reaches far into the future. She knows what she's getting who for their birthday two years from now, because she found it on sale at Sears last year, and it would be perfect. Sales are by no means her only resource. The wrappings are still fluttering to the floor on the gift she just opened when she's calculating who's going to get it next. She has a remarkable memory- if it was me I'd give it back to whoever I got it from a year ago. Knowing most of my friends, they wouldn't remember either, and it would be fine, but their wives would, and that's what's worrisome. She also has storage, which you would've figured. She needs it.

I told her I was a little put off by this one year. I said, someone puts the thought and effort into picking out a nice present and you just turn around and give it away to the next person. It kind of negates the point of gift giving, doesn't it? May as well just buy junk.

She said "No, it's not like that at all. First of all, what is the point of giving gifts? Is it a free gesture from the heart, done for religious calling, or to mark a point of passing, like a birthday? Or is it a ritual exchange on a firm foundation of economics embedded in social structure, bringing with it a series of obligations that differ by group, whether the group be defined as family, friends, co-workers or simply acquaintances? It's probably a little of both, but mostly what you call a balanced reciprocity, meaning that when you give somebody something, at some point you can expect they will return the gesture in some approximately equivalent form. You know how uncomfortable it is to give somebody a paperback as they give you a stereo or something grossly out of proportion with your gift. Balanced reciprocity is an important mechanism for survival among groups of people living closer to the edge of disaster than most of us. Does this look like it's going to just fold anytime soon?" We were standing in downtown Indy, by the roundabout. A marble obelisk war memorial rises several stories into the night air, lights strung from the top down to near the circular curb as a huge Christmas tree. Tall buildings with lights right up to the top floors crowd all around the tree, bringing the gifts of economy and security to place under the veil where steam rolls out of grates in the street beneath the cars whirring around like Piccadilly Circus.

"When you don't have all the safety nets we have built in" she went on, "you have to make some, and this is one of those. If we have a relationship, and you give me some gift of goods in your time of surplus when maybe I am in need, we understand that in your time of need, I will share with you. In this way we spread out the network of resource capture that keeps us alive as viable socioeconomic units. It is in everyone's interest to have as many of those sorts of relationships and alliances with groups in as many diverse areas as possible. Sort of a Brotherhood thing. Now, we don't have to be Bushmen living in the depths of the Kalahari for this to work. It's the same thing in small ranching communities, or in big cities. As our society becomes more and more affluent, the reciprocity becomes more and more ritualized, but important social traditions are intentionally committed to ritual specifically so they don't get lost. People have been doing this since long before white Europeans adopted Middle Eastern religions and came over and took the Americas away from the Indians."

"In reality, the actual gifts themselves matter much less than the continuity of the tradition and the balance of value. All I'm doing when I recycle gifts is carrying on a traditional framework of ritualized exchange, sort of keeping the faith. Where would we be without it?" Her timeless perspectives had again caught me off guard. Happy Holidays!

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