The Spirituality of Gift Giving

Is it possible to turn our gift giving into a spiritual exercise?

Because the holidays are here, many of us have embarked on the national reflex called “holiday shopping.” Along with it comes the stress, expense, and preoccupation associated with our expectations of giving and receiving gifts. From office parties to family gatherings, most of us will shortly be assembling lists of who will get what, and imagining what we will be given. Holiday gift giving and receiving is a cultural practice that leaves many of us feeling a little uncomfortably obligated beforehand, as well as exhausted and even broke afterward. Various moods of dissatisfaction with holiday gift practices are one reason most of us feel we need a holiday to recover from our holidays.

Because the shopping reflex often triggers a spiritual gag reflex, it is worth asking whether there might be a way to convert the traditional gift headaches of the holidays into an opportunity for everyday holiness. Can holiday gift practices be made into a spiritual exercise? In order to do so, we first have to do some reflection on the importance of gifts in our lives.

The gift of transcendence

When was the last time you discovered you loved someone? When was the last time that you gave yourself in friendship or accepted the friendship of another? When was the last time that you survived, or at least endured, suffering? When was the last time you allowed curiosity to lead you? When was the last time you offered or received forgiveness?

Thinking about our answers to these questions can help us appreciate our everyday and ongoing experiences of transcendence.

Before we ever consider shopping for gifts, we receive this power as a gift. Transcendence is an event that comes to us; it is not an item we can create. We do not invent for ourselves the power of curiosity itself; we certainly do not decide in advance whom we will truly love, it is something that is given.

The power that animates our everyday life, then, has the character of gift. It is also uncanny, strange, and mysterious. Atheists, agnostics, monotheists, and many others give it different names. It happens, whether we will it to or not. It does not come with identification papers.


The experiences that help make us ourselves are based in the completely unmerited giftedness of our lives. Who we love, what we can know, what we can hope for, what we can become—these are all gifts without which we would never even bother to worry about holiday shopping.

When thinking of holiday gift giving, it may be helpful to act from our own giftedness. The more we can allow the giftedness of our own lives to influence our holiday gift practices, the more spiritually meaningful the holidays can become. It is a matter of integrating our holiday gift practices into our appreciation for the gift of vitality that subtends our every act of curiosity, seeking, resistance, or eros. The task becomes integrating who we are, as spiritual persons, with what we buy.

A “just gift” practice

We always deal with our spirituality through our relationships with family, friends, and coworkers. There is also our economic relationships to those whose toil benefits us and to those whom we may never meet, but whom our own economic decisions affect.

This may rightly lead us to the realization that we are profoundly indebted to too many others to account: teachers, parents, loved ones, public servants, and makers of our goods. We cannot integrate our individual debts to them, for they are too numerous. We can only integrate an appreciation of the breadth and depth of the debt that is the gift.

Likewise, especially in a global economy, we are in over our heads with regard to our influence on others. Who can account for all the ways in which we are related every single day to workers around the globe, who make the stuff of our online orders, our hypermart excursions, our department store adventures, and whose lives are directly bound up with our economic decisions?

We can integrate this appreciation into our conscious choices about how to live, with attention to the depth and complexity of others’ reliance on us and our implication in the dignity of others. A just gift practice, then, is one that acts with dignity for those involved along the chain of the gift: those who make, purchase, and receive holiday gifts—or any product, really. This means our gift practices, however personal, are always social, because they help allow or disallow a dignified life for all those along the chain of the gift.

The holidays as a spiritual exercise

Framing our holiday gift practices as opportunities for affirmations of dignity, as occasions for practicing thankfulness for the gifts that we are, helps make the holidays a spiritual exercise.

Not to sound too pious, but this may require a new commitment to prayer or meditation in order to help us consent to a new perspective on our gift practices. The best way to gain a more reflective vantage point on our relationship to holiday gifts is to allow the questions to come out of our own life rather than depending on an external authority like a pastor or professor for the permission to change our habits.

One place these spiritual gifts can be savored is in prayer. Moreover, we can even bring explicit economic questions into prayer: how often do those of us who pray or meditate actually take our shopping habits into our prayer? How often do we refer our purchases to God? Changing how we shop is completely bound up with our willingness to change our relationship to ourselves. Prayer can help foster our living with gratitude for how much we depend on gifts from others, and such an orientation can put our concern with holiday gifts in a richer perspective.

Consider the human cost of gifts

One of the most challenging areas of integrating spirituality with economic decisions is the practice of self-examination about the economic relationships we enter into by purchasing certain gifts. These relationships are part of our personal network of mediators of the gift of life. In a host of countries outside the United States, legions of 18- to 25-year-old female laborers assemble the products that keep us clothed, fed, entertained, and thus make possible more cultivated pursuits. Who made those clothes, books, or toys we are considering giving, or have just received? Who harvested that coffee served at our holiday parties, where, and under what conditions? How does our relationship to their handiwork affect their ability to appreciate their spiritual “gift experiences”—that is, how does our purchase of their gifts affect their human dignity?

I have occasionally purchased coffee or clothing as gifts for others, and I’ve often received clothes from others on the holidays. There is a chain of relationships connected to such gifts. A few years back, I read a story about impoverished coffee farmers who harvest coffee beans for wealthy American coffee companies and are unable to climb out of poverty because of their inability to negotiate any aspects of the jobs they so desperately need. I caught a picture of one of their faces on the Web or in the paper. I ended up pulling my favorite brands out of my closet and tracking down who made “my” brands, where they were made, and the conditions under which they were put together.

With the exception of my branded sport coat produced in Toronto under Canadian labor laws, the rest of my favorite brands were assembled by non-American faces who were forbidden to join unions, had to submit to pregnancy tests, and were kept in poverty by American companies who had almost eliminated the cost of labor while avoiding paying any taxes due to breaks from the host countries where the factories were placed. Not that any of them volunteered this information, by the way. Most of them gave me public relations blowback and legal-speak—and some outright lied to me. I had to turn to independent reportage to find out exactly what I was supporting, and whose faces I was affecting, by my purchase of my favorite brands.

When I called the corporate headquarters of my local outpost of a coffee chain to see if I could travel—at my own expense—to South America to take pictures of the impoverished farmers who harvested my coffee and post them in the store, I got a firm and unequivocal “no.” This was an object lesson in how my gift giving and receiving was caught up in the control and denial of life for others.

For those who are interested in exploring further the economic relationships that are established in our gift purchases, I recommend the web site as a fine place to start. There, you can look up many of your favorite brands and see the positives and negatives regarding their labor and environmental records. This information can inform your conscience about your gift practices. For those who want to support alternative economic relationships, just do a Web search on topics such as “sweat-free” goods or “fair-trade” products, and you will see that everything from jeans to handbags to furniture to coffee can be purchased for the holidays in the context of a more human economic relationship.

Paring down gift-giving

My family decided several years ago to abandon normal holiday gift practices. Instead of acting out obligatory gift-giving between all six of us at Christmastime, we each draw one name at Thanksgiving and shop for that one person, with a gift to cost no more than $25 or so. Because this practice annually forces me to think about the purpose of gifts in my life, my family’s abandonment of normal holiday gift practices continues to be one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. But like most of us, I am just at the beginning of a deep integration of my spirituality with my economic decisions. If you are, too, and if my family’s practice helps you kick start making the holidays into a spiritual exercise, then please do steal the idea.

It’s my gift to you.

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