There is the giving of gifts and the receiving of gifts. There is the counting of how many who gave what and the reminders to say "thank you". Within the roots of holiday gift giving I find a lovely example of the Andean people of Peru's belief in "ayni" or sacred reciprocity. Ayni is the idea of the sacred balance of giving and receiving as the foundation of all life.
Different than the concept of fairness, ayni is not a dry calculation to balance the scales, but a living example of the Divine in action in our world. Gift giving, at its core, is the same. When we give gifts for the holidays there are certain social mores honored. We strive to choose gifts that will please the other person and show them our love. No matter what the content is of that next box we open, we plan to act delighted upon its unveiling because we care for the feelings of the person who gave it to us. Being a thoughtful giver is as important as being a gracious receiver.
In Peru, sacred reciprocity is not dependent on a holiday; it goes on in every moment. Every breath is considered a sacred exchange, taking in the One and letting out the One.
"Of the five principles, ayni is the single most important concept of the Andean way... it means the interchange of lovingkindness, knowledge, and the fruits of one’s labor between individuals, between humans and the environment, and between humans and nature spirits. Reciprocity implies that one’s labor is shared: I will help you today, and tomorrow you might help me. The purpose of reciprocity is the maintenance of life.
Ayni also implies respect for life... When we return the good that comes to us and show respect without judging the giver or what is received, it becomes benevolence in its highest form." - from The Shaman's Well
The act of holiday gift giving is meant to be a sacred act that is a demonstration of love and a celebration of the gifts of life. Ultimately, it is meant to be a ceremony revering the Divine no matter what religion or spirituality you practice. If that is always the case is another discussion and a hot debate in our avid consumerist society. However, for the sake of this line of inquiry, I am simply talking about the traditions at the heart of holiday gift giving.
When the holidays are over the cycle of giving ends in many of our lives. Any other times of year when we give gifts, the exchange is lop-sided or spread out over time. It is your friend's birthday. You give her a gift. She does not give you one until your birthday months later. The sacred act of giving and receiving at once is tucked away until next winter.
Already, by New Year's Day we have set aside reciprocity. We start out with our resolutions stating what we want for the year. It may be what we want of ourselves, what we'd like the universe to provide for us or what we'd like for the universe. Without taking a survey, I would say most resolutions are in the form of wishes which have us looking outward, waiting to receive.
What will we give this year?