Private Property and the Romance of Holiday Gift Giving

Jessie Allen, School of Law, University of Pittsburgh

Book the First.  Chapter the First.  Of the Absolute Rights of Individuals.  

 As I noted in my  Christmas post last week, this chapter is where Blackstone identifies “private property” as one of the fundamental values of English common law.  The chapter maintains the shifty now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t  view of law as a flexible social instrument and law as an immutable gift of god.  Thus private property is an “absolute right, inherent in every Englishman,” whose origin “is probably founded in nature.”  But the practices that actually constitute the legal right of property  — “the method of conserving it in the present owner, and of translating it from man to man” —  are part of the web of social constraints, “in exchange for which every individual has resigned a part of his natural liberty ” in order to gain the “civil advantages” of society.

Reading Blackstone around the holidays couldn’t help but make me wonder about how gift giving reflects and helps create our concept of private property.   A piece in the New York Times on “re-gifting” caught my eye.  The article describes the frowned-upon, but apparently widespread, practice of passing on presents one has received and passing them off as newly purchased items.  In a series of anecdotes a few brave souls confess to the sin of re-gifting with a guilty shrug, a knowing wink or a pragmatic recitation of economic necessity.   But the stories told by re-gifting victims have a darker emotional cast.  These are the people who tore off the glittering wrapping only to discover an obviously recycled gift or somehow found out that an object they previously bestowed was being packed off to another recipient.  Even incidents from long ago are recounted with outrage, sadness, longing and a pervasive sense of betrayal.  It’s not that these people are completely around the bend.  They seem to recognize that getting a used Christmas gift is a small, even trivial, complaint.  Nevertheless big feelings are in play.

Maybe because I recently re-read Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book, The Gift, it occurred to me that — but for those feelings — the shadowy world of re-gifting the Times describes is not unlike the gift economies in traditional societies — most famously the Kula Ring in the South Pacific.  In those systems, a limited inventory of ceremonial objects circulate continuously from person to person in a set pattern of trade relationships.   Kula objects — shell necklaces and bracelets — travel in two simultaneous circuits, in opposite directions.   As Bronislaw Malinowski explains, participants in the Kula “receive the goods, hold them for a short time, and then pass them on.”  Argonauts of the Western Pacific 81(Dutton 1961).  Likewise, according to the Times, holiday gifts in our own culture continue to circulate:  “nobody keeps anything these days. . . . Put a trace tag on a bottle of Champagne you give someone, in the manner of scientists that study the migration patterns of birds, and you’re likely to see it make a half -dozen stops.”  The difference is the feelings that result — that sense of betrayal.  What is that about?

A functionalist account would say each society gets the gift system that supports its mercantile economy.  And sure enough, the continuously circulating Kula gifts create a trade network in which the barter and exchange of all kinds of necessities flourish alongside the exchange of ceremonial objects.  In contrast, our “re-gifting”  taboo against Kula-like circulation requires that a new item be purchased for each gift partner on every ceremonial occasion, and thus maximizes the consumer spending that keeps our retail economy healthy.

But I think our holiday gift practices support “private” property in another way that comes closer to explaining the emotional heat stirred by re-gifters.  Our gift culture seems to replicate in a thousand small exchanges the “one true love” model of romantic attachment that is the most desirable of all “private” relationships and activities in our culture.  Like a monogamous romance, the bond of gift exchange entails an exclusion of others — “This is for you — and only for you — I found it, chose it from among all the rest — the one, true present meant for you, from me, now and forever.”    Giving it to someone else is like refusing to accept a proposal — and like falsely proposing to the someone else, who deserves better.  She is entitled to her own true romance —  the one chosen just for her —  this color, not that, this particular softness, flavor, shape, texture that will be hers always.  No wonder then, that the person whose gift is repackaged and sent elsewhere feels the ghost of simultaneous shame, loss and betrayal she might experience if her romantic partner was fooling around, and no wonder the person who receives the “re-gift” finds it in some way deeply insulting, even if he laughs about it.

I have to think that all this romantic intrique projected onto the consumer objects we exchange over the holidays affects our sense of the meaning of such personal property.  How exactly, I’m not prepared to say — but surely it participates in the often observed connection between shopping and desire.  And just as surely it infuses these bits of private property with the eroticized privacy of the idealized romantic relationship that remains our greatest object of cultural desire.