All I want for Christmas is ‘you’
What is the value of gifts? Do we primarily care about the utility of the gift, its economic value or the person who gave it? And how did Homeric heroes value gifts?
Santa is coming to town and the ritual of gift-giving with it. What to buy for your uncle? And how to react when you get something you would like to throw away as soon as you’re home? Gift-giving is full of ideas about the value of gifts and what they represent.
We want our gifts to be personal and to ‘mean something’. Whether this is reached by making a home-made scrapbook or travelling land and sea for that one bracelet, the value of a gift is often the effort that the giver puts into it. The gift as an object symbolizes you and your effort. This emotional value is often perceived as more important than its economic value or use value. Material objects have the ability to entangle a person, the current relationship between giver and receiver, places, and events with it. This means that gifts are mnemonic: seeing them reminds the receiver of the giver and of the memories related to their friendship. Just one gift can represent all these memories.
To gain a better understanding of the idea of mnemonic objects we can take a closer look at the very beginning of Western European literature – Homer’s Iliad. The Homeric heroes are obsessed with their status and gaining eternal fame. One very practical way to immortalize themselves is by attaching their persona to an imperishable object. The mnemonic function of objects is explicitly and extensively narrated in the Homeric epics as part of the strategy to always be remembered as the following passage shows.
Homer, Iliad 2.100 – 109
Then lord Agamemnon rose, bearing the scepter Hephaestus himself had forged with toil. Hephaestus gave it to king Zeus, son of Cronos, and Zeus in turn gave it to the messenger, the slayer of Argus. Lord Hermes gave it to the horse-driving Pelops, and Pelops in turn gave it to Atreus, shepherd of the people. At his death Atreus left it to Thyestes, rich in flocks, and Thyestes in turn left it to Agamemnon to bear, to be the lord of many isles and of all of Argos.
The description shows that the scepter is closely connected with previous owners and their personal relation. The lengthy ‘life stories’ that these objects carry with them are often structured as ‘biographies’, along the same pattern as genealogies of heroes. Whenever the object is seen or mentioned, its biography – i.e. the producer of the object, its previous owners, circumstances of exchange – is recalled. Seeing the object means to automatically think of Hephaestus, Zeus, Hermes, Pelops, Atreus, Thyestes and Agamemnon. This lengthy, impressive list of owners is what constitutes the value of the scepter. Besides, being the next owner can provide eternal remembrance. Therefore, being a part of the biography means to share in the objects prestige in the present and to be remembered for eternity. For a Greek hero, this is one of the most important things in life.
Such a detailed description of what the object should remind one of might strike us as odd, but is in fact what we do in our mind as well. I own at least six sweaters that I haven’t worn for a long time. Throwing them away feels like throwing away memories. They represent my first trip to the United States, my time as president of the study society, and my dad. All these ‘single’ memories open doors to related memories – my dad, trips with my family, gift-giving at Christmas etc. The mnemonic aspect of the sweaters is more important than wearing them frequently.
Another famous example is the Titanic-violin. When the Titanic sank, Wallace Hartley played the violin to comfort the passengers on the sinking ship. This violin was sold at auction for more than $1.7 million dollars, although it couldn’t be played anymore. It’s value, expressed in money, is not its material value or use value but the story about the Titanic it evokes. ‘The Titanic’ is a collective memory – by seeing the violin everyone is reminded of the historic disaster. In addition to this collective memory, personal memories are attached to the instrument as well which increases its emotional value even more.
Hartley’s fiancé, Maria, gave him the instrument as a present for their engagement. Before the violin became so valuable because of its collective memory, its value was being a symbol of their love. The violin evokes not only the historic event of the unsinkable sinking ship, but also a very intimate memory of an engagement. The cumulation of both events along with their memories related to the collective and personal memory – i.e. the violin’s biography – makes the instrument even more valuable. Especially for Maria, the violin will primarily evoke the memory of her husband, their relationship, their engagement, the Titanic and the heroic role of her husband during the disaster. The violin is a palpable reminder of the past – all these memories live on in the object.
Although the Greeks are far more obsessed with their own reputation than we are, we still try to entangle the best version of ourselves in our presents. We primarily care about who gives the present, on which occasion, the relation between giver and receiver, and how all these aspects are entangled with the gift. In giving a present, you entangle yourself in the gift and symbolize your relation with the receiver. Whatever you give for Christmas, you give yourself. Because after all, all we want for Christmas is you.
- Homer, Iliad.
- On gift-giving and reciprocity in classical Greece: Van Berkel, T. (2020) The Economics of Friendship: Conceptions of Reciprocity in Classical Greece (Leiden). https://brill.com/view/title/54776?lang=en
- Crielaard, J.P. (2003) “The cultural biography of material goods in Homer’s epics”, Gaia, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 49 – 62.
- Crielaard, J.P. (2008) ‘Reizende goederen en gevleugelde woorden. De culturele biografie van objecten in Homerisch en Archaïsch Griekenland’, Lampas. Tijdschrift voor Nederlandse Classici 41.3, 197-217.
- Munteán, L., L. Plate, A. Smelik (eds.) (2017) Materializing Memory in Art and Popular Culture (New York & London)
 Translation is my own.
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