Monday, December 19, 2011


Gift Cultures

I don’t think of myself as Scrooge, but this time of year the endless questions around “secret Santas” and informal gift exchange always crop up. Lesboprof’s take is particularly thoughtful. Having worked in a few different places, I’ve noticed that cultural expectations around gift exchange are strongly local. Rules that seem inviolate in one place would seem utterly strange in another; the folks who move from one to the other are expected to just know. I’m not a fan of expected cross-rank gift-giving. Having worked in a place where it was effectively mandatory, I saw it as an ethical time bomb and a constant headache. How much gift is appropriate? If you receive a gift, are you obliged to reciprocate? What else does a gift imply? (Gifts to the person who does your annual evaluation strike me as obviously thorny.) And it’s hard not to notice that strict reciprocity in gift expectations fails to account for different salaries. The folks on the bottom wind up getting hurt by that. Larger cultural issues obviously intrude, too. Not everybody is Christian, and not everybody celebrates holidays at this time of year. (I’m told, too, that Chanukah isn’t nearly as central to Judaism as Christmas is to Christianity. Apparently, Passover is a much more important occasion than Chanukah.) Those who don’t shouldn’t be coerced into playing along, and/or subtly punished for not. That should be obvious, but the whole “put the Christ back in Christmas” movement has overlaid a layer of reactionary politics on the entire question. In this climate, opting out or playing it low-key can be taken as the equivalent of open hostility. (Similar issues arise around Christmas decorations. At a public institution, it’s fair to assume that some of the taxpayers whose money is being used don’t celebrate Christmas. But there’s always someone who insists on going over the top to make some sort of point about a perceived hostility to religion. I grant without argument that the issue may play differently at a religiously-affiliated college.) Some places have adopted the wonderful strategy of organizing gift-giving for some local charity, and/or for scholarships for deserving students. That way, people who would like to give have a constructive venue for doing it, and those who would rather opt out have the choice. Locating the beneficiaries outside of the workplace does wonders for the ethical issues, and restores some healthy progressivity to the impact. But some folks just can’t be content with that. The new-manager’s dilemma is in confronting long-entrenched practices that really don’t make sense. The first person to interrupt the circuit of cross-rank gifts is often considered the jerk, even if most people silently breathe a sigh of relief. (Actually, that’s a pretty good description of administration generally.) And getting the persecuted true believer to take it down a notch is always a risky endeavor. Wise and worldly readers, have you found productive ways to redirect gift cultures gone horribly awry? Alternately, have you found successful ways to get the most militant over-the-top decorators to tone it down without causing a huge issue?

Can't help you on the gift questions, we don't do that where I'm employed.

Just wanted to say, it is Easter, not Christmas, that is central to Christianity, the way I was brought up. Christ's birth may have been a miracle, but it was his resurrection that became the foundation of the faith. In the same way as Passover is more important than Chanukah. Providentially, Easter has not yet been over-commercialized.

Also: "scholarships for deserving students." Who are the deserving? Those whose parents scrimped and saved for a college fund, so they have access to some assets, or those whose parents spent every last dime and so have no savings? Or those who are doing really well academically, either through hard work or native talent? Just looking for some transparency.
While I've not run into it at places that I've worked, I'm aware of a professional colleague whose end of the year Charity Drive involved them putting up the names of everyone who had donated in a public space. The goal was apparently not to recognize those who had given but to allow people to bully people whose names weren't yet there through the various methods of snide comments, "helpful" reminder emails, overhead conversations, etc.

Particularly in this day and age of supporting parents as well as children or extended family or helping out a friend who may be having financial troubles, I think this is awful. You never know and never make an assumption about someone's financial ability to give nor how they've planned their charitable giving for the year.

Myself, I brought small treats back from my last long vacation for each of the people in my immediate department. No one is getting a Christmas gift and I've not received any either. And we all seem to be okay with that. My last job we did exchange in my department and while it was fun, it was a lot of extra stress at the end of the year.
I'm a mid-level admin and because I am very close with my staff. They each get small gifts. I'll admit that I'm lucky that we all managed to share the same faith background. I do not expect gifts in return and my 2nd in command is good about sharing that culture with newbies. I would hope those that even those people who don't celebrate would be able to at least graciously accept gifts. In other jobs, I only baked for people. Which can make things easier. My boss gave each of her direct reports a small gift. I did not return that favor. Like DD said, it gets weird. But I've gifted with other bosses, so there a relationship aspect to it.

On the decorations front: wreaths and the like are not Christian. Even Christmas trees and Santa are not Christian. A nativity set is. Trees and wreaths and Rudolph are secular. At my previous employer, we had a Menorah, the Kwanza equivalent of a menorah (whatever the candle thing is) and a wreath. When questioned about it, we were told that the wreath was for the Christians. A nativity set got put up the next day and all was well with the world. This was at a formerly catholic, now private non-affli SLAC. High density Jewish population. So much so that we got off on Yom Kippur and a couple other holy days.

At my public U, there are many beautiful trees and wreaths at the main campus. We have a rather Charlie brown-esque tree that we brought in on our own. Just some red ornaments. And neither staff nor students have complained. And our students complain at the drop of a hat.
the whole “put the Christ back in Christmas” movement has overlaid a layer of reactionary politics on the entire question

That's for damned sure. It doesn't seem that long ago that people greeted each other during the holidays as they saw fit and no one pitched a fit about it. Now we have self-involved and overly aggrieved "defenders" of Christmas who snap at people who bid them a cheery "Happy Holidays." And I think it's getting worse: At the pre-final review session I wished my class good luck on the final exam and expressed a hope that they would catch up on their sleep during "the semester break." One of my students actually scowled at me and muttered "Christmas break." Yeah. Good way to spread the "reason for the season." Bah, humbug!
My last workplace had a tradition of white elephant gift exchange that brought out all sorts of insanity & latent hostility. So much so that I found excuses to skip the thing a couple of years.

Here we've done trips to the mall to buy something for the Salvation Army tree. I bite my tongue with my objections to SA & to being in ToysRUs in December, and try to see the goodheartedness in it.

I suppose I'm lucky that although I'm not a believer, I love Christmas on an asthetic level.
We draw names for gifts in the Dean's office at my Public U, and buy $20 presents for the recipient that are new and suitable for kids/teens; after they are opened, all the "gifts" are then delivered to a Christmas gift charity.
That way there is a sort-of gift exchange, with a bit of fun as everyone has something to open, but we donate it all instead of giving each other things no one needs/wants.
It seems to work well for everyone, for people of all backgrounds.
The person who put a Christmas tree in our office is an Assistant VP.

I am but half a step up from administrative assistant.

I don't feel comfortable with the tree (I'm part of a religious minority) but I feel even less comfortable saying that aloud. I would never, never, never let it be known to the Christmas Tree Defender, a person several light years beyond me in rank, that I disagree with his choice. I need my work environment to be tolerable now and I need him to serve as a reference for future jobs. As far as he is concerned, I am the most cooperative person on Earth. I'm not going to risk that over a Christmas tree.

But I find it appalling that we have it in a public space in a state school (I work in an office that serves students). I greatly miss our old chief, who left a few months back, and never went for this sort of thing.

Please don't assume staff aren't complaining because they don't care.
Crikey, what a horrible situation is being described here by both DD and the comments.

Over here on the other side of the Atlantic, things are rather simpler (my theory is that because all western European countries are largely irreligious, no-one really thinks of Christmas a religious event, and instead thinks of it as a very welcome festival of food and socialising in the depths of winter). I've never worked anywhere that exchanges gifts, and it would be regarded as a weird idea for all the reasons outlined by DD - when I was Head of Department, I bought token gifts for our department admin assistants, but they were very token indeed, just a gesture of thanks for seeing me through the year more or less sane. Some of us exchange cards, but rather patchily, given that each year some of us were too disorganised to send them, and no-one ever cared or took that personally. We have a tree (always lopsided and put up at the last minute), but again, this wouldn't be regarded as Christian, just festive. And we go for departmental drinks in the last week of teaching, but very informally and again, if people can't make it because of childcare/other social engagements, no-one thinks anything of it.

I now feel very grateful for all the above, having read these comments. Less religion, more sociability, would seem to be the answer, but that's clearly a wider societal issue.
We had a pushy gift exchange organizer that has simply moved on to a new CC. Thank goodness. It was always uncomfortable saying no when she would come around getting names to swap as she was a "work friend".

Our CC puts up a Christmas tree right in the middle of the lobby of one of our busiest buildings (and the one I work in). I despise the tree but, as someone else noted, it is deemed necessary by the President of the CC so I am not going to bitch aloud.

We also have a wonderful poster board right next to the tree touting the music CDs for sale that are recordings of the President playing holiday and gospel music.

Did I mention that our CC has no religious affiliations? What a joke. If you aren't Christian then you are going to feel out of place, particularly at this time of year.
Our department planned an ugly christmas sweater day and a potluck- our VP of Student Success also planned crafts and a potluck with a larger invite. This seemed to work because it was trivial rather than sentimental and it all reminded us to laugh and take part in childish endeavors rather than stressing about our work and the budget crisis all of the time. Also, I agree with you about charities, DD. I think most of us can agree that when Christmas includes these sorts of opportunities, people are less likely to care what we call it or which majority is being given territory. The decorations throughout our CC consisted of Christmas trees that were given away to families who could not afford them this year. One Christmas tree belongs to the college, and will be the first of a new tradition of planting a tree on campus each year. Finally, the only gifts we formally give are baskets associated with a raffle- with the money raised, we were able to give $50 gift cards for groceries to 60 student families. All that said, I think our college employees are proud of how we do "the holidays."

Unfortunately, all of the religious backlashing that is taking place is only going to be made worse by our offenses and tactics (and that goes for both sides). A college is a place for learning, and sometimes that means that we learn how to enjoy each other's practices (majority and minority included). Who cares what we call it... the learning comes from observing what this season means to each person and appreciating the beauty of that. We must lay down our offenses, and that's all there is to it.

On a final note, the previous post about Christmas symbols being secular is true; although, I would say they are more "pagan." If you look into the history of the Christmas tree, for instance, you will find that this tradition stems from the goddess of fertility. You will never take offense again! :)
While the wreaths, trees, et cetera are not Christian in origin, they are now associated with Christmas by most Americans and perhaps especially by non-Christian Americans. To say that to put up a tree or wreath (surely decorated with other Christmas-like symbols) is not creating a Christmas atmosphere is a bit of a stretch. I am not Christian and when at work (community college) there was a tree and more in the faculty office I said to myself, "Christmas decorations" not "winter decorations" or "pre-Christian pagan winter religious symbols."

Some years I mind more than others and of course to say anything is to be a jerk and buzzkill.
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