Jan 13, 2014



It happens every year!  After the wrapping paper is recycled and the thank-you notes are written, I find myself reflecting back on the whole gift-giving experience with friends and family.  It is a tradition I approach annually with both anticipation and trepidation.  Do people need more stuff?  Have I been thoughtful in my choices or simply pressured into an activity ingrained in my seasonal rhythms over the years?

How did this tradition come to us?  Some faithfully attribute gift-giving to the reverence of the Three Kings who brought gifts to a baby Jesus.  Others connect the tradition to the earlier Roman celebration of Saturnalia held in December to honor abundance and the return of light.  Still others see the blossoming of gift-giving as a way to shift the attention of the holiday to children, especially with the appearance of the gift-giving Santa Claus in the early 1800s.  Regardless, gift-giving has found its way into many fall/winter holiday traditions, including Eid al-Fitr, Chanukah and Kwanzaa.

Certainly, when I was a child, it was the pile of gifts that marked Christmas for us.  And, with five children, my parents had their work cut out for them.  Our Christmas mornings were a cacophony of ripping paper, mechanical toys chased by barking dogs, music on the stereo, and squeals of excitement and gratitude yelled across the room.   But at some point I transitioned from gift-receiver to gift-giver.  We all do, continuing a cycle of values modeled by those who first gave to us; whether for Christmas, a birthday or some other celebration that involves the giving of gifts.  As we grow into our own gift-giving philosophy, we may change some of those values (i.e. handmade vs store bought; time together vs an object; one big gift vs lots of little gifts), but the tradition of giving remains.  And each year I try to be wiser, or at least more thoughtful about the act of giving.  What is it that we accomplish by the act of giving gifts?

Lewis Hyde, in his seminal work The Gift (a foundational reading for the MACS program) explores the concept of the gift economy as a critical element in nurturing the values and traditions that sustain communities.  He despairs that our culture is defined by money and an economy shaped by the power to buy and sell commodities.  While he is especially interested in the artist’s gift of creative talent with its boundless and reverberant nature, his ideas resonate with any form of gift-giving or receiving.   He suggests that “we suffer gratitude” when a gift is received and that suffering “enlivens us.”   Gratitude compels a sense of reciprocity.  We might give a gift in return, offer a kindness, or draw the giver more deeply into our confidences.  Such reciprocity weaves the strands of our community more closely together, thus extending the power of the gift, the kindness, the connection “around the corner” and sometimes out of sight.   Gifts, or perhaps more accurately the act of giving/receiving, reinforces the flow and vitality of connections within families, circles of friends and communities.  We are talking about pretty big stakes, when you think about gift-giving in this light.

But there are greater stakes.  If we expand the idea of the gift beyond the handmade or store bought item, beyond the artistic talents of creative people, we arrive at the deeper, ancient gifts of culture.   These gifts embody and transfer the knowledge, values and traditions so precious to us that we are driven to pass them on from one generation to the next.  These gifts have crossed oceans, survived atrocities, dodged bullets and found their way into the very essence of who we are; a lullaby echoing the voice of your grandfather, a baking lesson with your mother, a gardening pattern that cultivates your sense of place, a ritual that connects you to the divine, a story diverting you from danger.  These are the gifts that, if treasured, just might allow us to live peaceably on this planet.

There is clearly a continuum of gift-giving.  Birthday or holiday gifts are given with intention; with our hands, if you will.  Artistic talents and cultural gifts are more innate, given with heart.  But each is an act of generosity and in the giving or transferring has the capacity to enact kindnesses and reciprocity. Imagine if each gift given or received could foster peace and interconnectedness?

As we ramp up to another residency, I look forward to digging more deeply into the soil/soul of the MACS program to discover together the gifts that the students and faculty bring to our community of practice.  The time we share during the residency is its own gift – one that allows us to imagine what is precious in our communities and how we might work to sustain that which we treasure.


Hyde, Lewis. 2007. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. New York: Vintage Books.

skillman-headshot1 Amy Skillman, M.A.
Academic Director
As a folklorist, Skillman works at the intersection of culture and tension, where paying attention to culture can serve to mediate social change. She advises artists and community-based organizations on the implementation of programs that honor and conserve cultural traditions, guides them to potential resources, and develops programs to help build their capacity to sustain these initiatives. Drawing on extensive research and documentation, Skillman has developed a variety of public programs that bring awareness to issues of importance in these communities. Her work has included an oral history/leadership empowerment initiative with immigrant and refugee women in Central Pennsylvania, a Grammy-nominated recording of old time fiddlers in Missouri, and a yearlong arts residency with alternative education high school students rooted in the ethnography of their lives. Skillman recently curated a major traveling exhibition that examines the role of folk arts as a catalyst for activism in communities throughout Pennsylvania. She received her Masters degree in Folklore and Folklife from the University of California, Los Angeles and her Bachelor of Arts from St. Lawrence University in a self-designed major in Cultural Minorities and the Immigrant Experience.

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