This piece of text will contain ancient shamanic sorceries and Coca-cola irony. But first, a story:
I got to the pizza place and quickly found my friend’s table. The group greeted me joyfully and I proceeded to give the birthday boy, Helio, a hug. I produced my gift and I gotta say — it looked weird. Gift wrapping embracing some alien object. I told Helio: “I bet you will never figure out what this is”.
I knew what was about to happen. He turned it over and over. Tried the tips with his fingers, shook it in different directions. Squeezed it gently. Even put his ear on the wrapping, like some Navajo Indian trying to hear the horses in the distance. Still, he was having a hard time.
Eventually, he gave up. I had defeated him. He opened the wrapping.
Inside the package, the treasure revealed: a banana trespassed by a fork. This is no metaphor, literally a banana-murder crime scene. His face was utter confusion.
After more or less 10 years, my closest group of friends still considers this one of the best gifts they’ve ever seen.
The art of gifting
Years later I was faced with a situation in which I had to think more professionally about gifting. My mind naturally gravitated to that same pizza place and everybody’s delight. I knew then that I had unlocked some sort of secret — a mystery I’m about to reveal.
Now, Instead of just saying why he liked my bizarre chimera, I’m going to turn this into a guide, a treasure map for those who have a hard time having ideas for the perfect memento.
Why people celebrate birthdays anyway
I’m very fond of mundane rituals. This word “rituals” was dominated by the religious paradigm, but we should see them as they are: culturally constructed and shared habits. Being so, brushing your teeth every morning, saying “bless you” when somebody sneezes and celebrating birthdays are as ritualistic as any Sufi whirling dance.
Still, it’s important to remember where those rituals came from. If we lose grip on the meanings, we may end up with Easter being a celebration of egg-laying bunnies and Christmas being just a mass hysteria about Coca-Cola.
In most of the Western culture, the act of gifting comes from a place of passing the protagonism to someone else — as in a theatre play, when one of the actors leave the central spotlight just so the other can jump in for his own line.
Just by actively remembering this energy, you can be a better chooser. But this is not what you’re here for, is it? You’re here for some deep scary shamanic magic, aren’t you?
I will not disappoint you!
Potlatch, the donation ceremony
Generosity is a key element in Native American culture, so it’s no surprise that the donation ritual — Potlatch — is so important.
The central part of Potlatch is that the art of giving an object imbues it with a sacred and magical status. The giver also offers a small part of his or her own personal power.
But just giving something is not enough to summon those ancient energies! Or else every Xmas dinner would open portals between worlds. The ritual is only completed if you fulfil all of its prerequisites.
First, the object must be dear and useful to the giver. If you just participate in the ritual to get rid of something you don’t care, you’re doing yourself (and your tribe) a big disservice. Indeed if you want to prove your true value as a leader, you should offer your best stuff.
Second, you should (and let me quote Jamie Sams directly here) “perform the act of donation with a humble attitude and a heart full of joy”. The passing of the object itself is just the first step of the process: the true enchantment happens when the giver looks in the mirror and evaluates how much growth is associated with that act of detachment.
Bam! That’s some sweet sorcery for you.
A guide to the unforgettable
Ok, Potlatch is cool, but somewhat… intense? Maybe you just want to impress your nephew. You came to the right place.
It’s simple: you just gotta change your internal question. But in fact this new question demands a change of attitude.
You see, nobody expects you to give ’em something that will blow their minds. They just want to know you care. Truly care, “heart full of joy” and all that.
So the new question is:
“what is the gift that will make this person sure it was for him/her?”
See how it changes everything? You are now yanked to a place of remembering the moments you two spent together. You’ll scan your conversations looking for clues, for happy information you’ve shared. You’ll relive the giggles, the good bits, and when you finally find a target thing that this person might enjoy — it will be unique.
If you did your exploration right, you’re going to put essentially one thing inside the box: a physical manifestation of “I remember, I care, I value the exchanges we had.”
Money is not important. You can even destroy a banana and wrap it in pretty paper, if that’s what your bonding demands.
Why my friend loved a desecrated banana
Ok, with all of this in mind, let me explain the miracle of the banana.
You see, this gift — as weird as it was — was customised. Carefully crafted to fulfil my friend’s preferences.
Helio was ever a curious person, prone to get into wikipedia’s rabbit holes and find club’s backdoors. A true puzzle enthusiast. Part of the gift was the guessing challenge — and I knew he’d never get it right. By presenting him with a hard to break mental jigsaw, I showed him that I recognised his discoverer tendencies.
But of course, the apotheosis was the opening. Me and him, we share a passion for storytelling — more specifically for wacky nonsensical storytelling. When he opened that… thing, for a brief moment he could feel he was living inside Monty Python’s Flying Circus. A pleasant surprise (heart full of joy) and a funny story to add to his vast collection.
See how it fits?
Holiday season is not far. Don’t turn this gift-giving into a forced ritual. Until the Europeans got to North America, the natives didn’t even knew what “gifting as obligation” was, much less giving something and expecting something in return. They only knew Potlatch.
You don’t have to be so hardcore. But hey, let’s learn something, turn this into a magical thing. Don’t just buy that same perfume or t-shirt.
Share a piece of your own power.
(this text is dedicated to my beautiful Magdalena, who really don’t need any advice on gift-giving)