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These are the marks of Black Friday, the annual bacchanal for consumer excess. And excess, it is normally thought, is a sign of vice. Profligacy. Christmas, the backlash insists, isn’t about possessing things, but about family and salvation, respect and contrition.
Except, in another sense, it isn’t. Whether one is a believer or not, Christmas is about a particularly excessive gift—an ultimate gift, the gift of God’s only son, whom the scriptures declare would sacrifice his life for all mankind. Excess is the origin story of Christmas, rendering Black Friday strangely compatible with the liturgy.
Giving a gift is an act of competition as much as generosity. This is an idea first popularized by the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, whose 1954 study of the gift as a form of exchange upset the idea that barter and currency were primary modes of human economic exchange. Instead, through the examples of supposedly primitive societies in the ancient and modern worlds, Mauss argued that gift giving is both more fundamental and a greater collective good. That’s because, unlike barter or currency exchange, gifts rely on economies of reciprocity. In a gift economy, you have to give, you have to receive, and you have to return the gesture of the gift at a later time.