The University Record, December 13, 1999

Holiday shopping craze due to more than consumerism

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

The frenzy of holiday shopping that comes over the country at this time of year is not just an expression of crass consumerism, according to an U of M anthropologist.

“There’s something more interesting going on,” says Webb Keane, associate professor of anthropology and an expert on money and material culture. “We live in a world where kinship ties are weak and narrow. Families are small and scattered, the divorce rate is high and people move around a lot. The giving of gifts is one important ritual that allows people to affirm their social ties and forge new relationships.”

Americans like to think that ours is a free society, Keane notes, with few ancestral rules that apply. But the obligatory quality of holiday gift-giving, in addition to the enormous amounts of time and money devoted to shopping for Christmas and Hanukkah gifts, are clues that something beyond an orgy of consumer excess is behind the contemporary custom of holiday giving.

“Everyone complains about the materialism, the money and the time, but no one is forcing people to go shopping,” says Keane, who teaches a class on gifts and money. “In fact, people spend a lot of time shopping all year long, but they only really complain about it at Christmas. Why is this?”

It’s not the long lines and the money, as much as it is the burden of the choices that have to be made. “These choices are the hard work of forging social bonds,” he observes. “A lot of feelings get hurt because of the choices that are made. If giving gifts were just a commercial transaction, you wouldn’t care if your husband gave you a really ugly sweater. But a gift isn’t just a transaction, it’s a sign that I know your likes, your dislikes, who you really are.”

The obligatory quality of holiday gift exchanges, he points out, extends to the recipients as well as the givers. “Ritual displays of appreciation are obligatory, too—‘Oh, it’s wonderful! I love it!’—no matter what we really think of the gift,” Keane says. “We think we’re free, living in a world free of ceremony, but the holidays reveal how important ritual displays and kinship ties really are.”

The emphasis on wrapping gifts is another indication that giving gifts is more than an expression of modern materialism. “Removing the price tag and wrapping the gift is a way of transforming something commercial and therefore terribly impersonal, into something personal,” Keane says. “Wrapping is a way of concealing the commercial quality of the gift. When we wrap gifts in very elaborate ways that often cost as much as the gifts themselves, what’s being acted out is our own anxious relationship to money: we want it, we love it, but at the same time, it’s inappropriate in personal relationships.”

That’s why giving money itself as a gift is usually unacceptable, Keane notes. “It’s okay to give money outside the family, the inner circle,” he says. “But inside, we have to enact these ritual ways of taming money. Sometimes grandparents give money, as a sign of a grandchild’s increasing autonomy. ‘Go ahead and buy whatever you want.’ But they give crisp, new bills inside a nice, inscribed card, as ways of domesticating the money.”

At the other extreme from our immediate family are those people for whom money is the expected gift. These “fictive friends,” as Keane calls them, are hairdressers, doormen, bus drivers, the people who deliver our mail and our newspapers. “A tip acts like a gift,” Keane says, “but it’s only money, so that’s a sign that we’re not too close to them.”

With all the choices about who gets what and why, it’s no wonder that stress levels escalate around the holidays. “No other people on earth so publicly, frequently and loudly lament their materialism as Americans,” Keane says. “For at least a century, we’ve been decrying the commercialization of life in general and the holiday season in particular. It’s not because we’re more materialistic than other countries. But we’re bothered more by our materialism. We think we should be more spiritual than we really are.

“Everyday we negotiate between the material and the non-material, between the commercial and the domestic. We ritualistically try to control the relationship between these sets of dualities. But at the holidays, the pace of the negotiations accelerates and it becomes really hard to balance the tensions.”