26 December 2013

On the Panettone Ring

Does anyone actually eat panettone?

I wonder about "gift shops". The very term implies that what they sell is stuff which no-one would ever buy for themselves, and is therefore effectively useless and valueless. But that is a limited and utilitarian view, held only by people who believe in materialist rationality and common sense.

"Gift" has now become a verb as well as a noun. Its incidence, compared to that of simply "give" is still too small to yield interesting results on Google Ngram, but it draws attention to the act of giving rather than the object given.

And that has a very venerable tradition—much more important than the focus on the present itself. I started to explore this (it's Boxing Day, for goodness' sake!) and quickly got mired in diplomatic history and protocols—individually intriguing examples but...

...the real sense-making stuff comes from anthropology, of course. I'm sure there were lots of references to the Kula ring in the stuff I was skimming, but I missed them. Nonetheless I was nudged towards it.

It is—or was—a gift-exchange tradition in the Trobriand Islands of the South Pacific, researched principally by Bronislaw Malinowski, while effectively interned there during the first World War. An archipelago of about eighteen islands maintained cultural contact through a continual exchange of gifts—an exchange which was not undertaken lightly because it involved perilous journeys in open boats across open seas. The gifts increased in value as they were exchanged, but it was cultural rather than material value, accrued though the history of exchange. And for each one given, another was received (excuse the simplification).

There was no direct economic benefit from such exchange. Selling a gift-item outside the ring would be stupid. The objects themselves were (are?) found items such as shells, and craft/art work based on them.


R. came for brunch on Christmas Day, and apart from the general family exchange of presents, deposited a large box in the kitchen (half-hidden on one of the kitchen stools) without a word.

Classy tactics! We were too busy serving brunch (and clearing up) to pay attention. When the tide receded, the panettone was stranded. And R had disappeared for a few days climbing with a friend.

We suspect he got it as a gift from one of his customers—he wouldn't buy such a thing himself. Or perhaps a gift from the Italian bakery where he goes for breakfast when he is working nearby?

We have to eat it. Or pass it on. Or accept responsibility for "throwing food away".

Not a Kula ring. More pass the parcel.

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