When Presents Become Revenge: Retaliatory Altruism and the Spirit of Christmas

The worst thing I ever did at Christmas was buy somebody a present. I am still ashamed of my actions on this occasion. I was a truly horrible human being, and my failure still haunts me every Christmas season.

Let me explain.

When our kids were toddlers, we used a local home provider for our childcare. The caregiver was a sixty-something woman who had recently been widowed and who needed the extra income to keep her house. She was also an accomplished candy-maker, and, for Christmas one year, she made fairly awesome selection of candies for all of her clients.

When she presented me with our family’s gift, I was immediately seized with panic. I had not gotten anything for her. I had not even thought of giving her a present. Getting a present from her felt humiliating, so I lied and said that we had a present for her and would bring it later in the day. Then I went to the store and bought something ridiculously expensive, put it in a bag, and (because she wasn’t home when I came by) left it on the doorstep with a note saying that it was from The Austins.

We were even–except that I basically failed my human being test by treating somebody’s heartfelt gift as an obligation. When I bought a present, I was not thinking, “I like this person so much that I want to buy her a present to show my affection.” I was thinking “Who does this person think she is to serve me. I’ll show her who is the generous one around here . . . .”

Evolutionary biologists and cognitive psychologists have a concept called “reciprocal altruism,” or, more colloquially, as “tit for tat.” Humans and lots of other species experience reciprocal altruism: vampire bats, for example, will share blood with other vampire bats who have had a bad night. And chimpanzees will groom each other, picking lice out of each other’s fur and eating them. But both the bats and the chimps have ways to remember who has eaten their lice or shared blood with them—and they will refuse to help those who have gone to long without reciprocating.

In humans, though, reciprocal altruism can give way to what I will call retaliatory altruism, or reciprocity based on anxiety that we will be seen as non-reciprocators or that we will be in debt to those we do not want to be in debt to. This is when the process of giving gifts can become an act of revenge.

Perhaps the greatest literary example that we have of retaliatory altruism is Intruder in the Dust–the best Faulkner novel that nobody really reads anymore. As the novel begins, Chick Mallison, a young white boy, has fallen into a frozen pond and been rescued by an Lucas Beauchamp, an elderly black man whose father was a slave. Lucas brings Chick into his home, dries his clothes, and gives him his own dinner.

Unwilling to be treated so well by a black man, Chick tries to pay him for the service. When Lucas refuses, Chick throws some coins at him in disgust, but Lucas has a black child return the money to its rightful owner. When he gets home, Chick starts saving his money so he can send an expensive gift to Lucas’s wife, but as soon as he does, Lucas sends Chick a gallon of molasses.

Lucas is, of course, the “Intruder,” and “the Dust” is the ossified social structure of the American South in the early 20th century.  Most of Faulkner’s readers recognize this and realize that Chick’s desire to give Lucas money is based on a deep-seated racism: he cannot stand the thought of being in debt to a social inferior, and he does not want to face the conclusions that follow from acknowledging a black man as an equal—or even as a human being. So he does everything in his power to turn Lucas’s act of compassion into a commercial transaction.        

We have a great counter example to the phenomenon that Faulkner describes. It comes from the New Testament, in the eighth chapter of John, when Mary anoints Christ’s feet with some seriously expensive oil

Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him. “Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?” . . . Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. (John 12: 3-6;7)

I love this passage because it shows Jesus doing something really hard:  he is letting somebody else serve him, spend money on him, and devote attention to him. He doesn’t tell Mary to go sell the oil and give the money to the poor. Nor does He tell her that he got a present for her too and he will bring it by later. He simply lets her show her affection for him and accepts her gift. He knows how important it is for her to give something to him. He loves her too much to deprive her of an opportunity to serve Him.

The flippant answer here is, “go ahead and give me a present; I won’t get mad. Heck, give me two” But most of us don’t really believe that. Most of us are more like Chick Mallison than Jesus. We do not like to be on the wrong side of the scorecard, especially especially with people we know, and extra-especially with people that we want to think of as socially or professionally below us.

By rushing to reciprocate whenever somebody serves us or gives us a gift, we pretend that our actions are not unforgivable arrogance, which they are, but companionable generosity, which they are not. Sometimes, the greatest gift we can give to others is simply to allow them to serve us–and to accept that service and allow ourselves to be in their debt.


  1. I love this. I feel a lot of guilt around not being a good gift reciprocator (or Christmas card reciprocator, for that matter). This year I’m trying to accept some grace and remember that I enrich my friends’ lives in other ways.

  2. This is Nice!

  3. Thank you. Excellent piece. I think I have finally outgrown the need to match my gifts to someone else’s gift, in value or in kind. In recent years my financial situation has been precarious so I have given gifts that are homemade, but that have required much effort to make, such as a handknit blanket, 100 hours of work to create. It is impossible for most others to match the work since my friends and family are not very talented in making things. But I refuse to feel bad if they spend more money on my gift than I spent on theirs. I guess the point I am trying to make us that I value myself enough to receive from others what I cannot match because I feel my contributions are equally important. Perhaps that is why our Saviour can both give and receive graciously.

  4. Aussie Mormon says:

    A somewhat relevant big-bang-theory quote https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vqavhn9TlSg

  5. ptylerdactyl says:

    This is beautiful. Thank you!

  6. Amen. Jesus says it is more blessed to give than to receive, but sometimes we have to receive with grace so that we can give with grace.

  7. “go ahead and give me a present” isn’t the only flip-side. The one that occurs to me (first) is that I would like to give what I want to give or what I think is needed _without_ creating an obligation. When I feel like I’m playing into an interactive web of relationship and expectation I want to run away screaming. Be a good receiver, please.

  8. I was just saying to my sister’s yesterday that sometimes it’s easier to have “the spirit of Christmas” when it’s not Christmas. It’s so stressful to think about all the presents you need to buy and cards you need to send and treats you need to make because you feel obligated to reciprocate people’s generosity. Not that you shouldn’t reciprocate generosity, but I really don’t like buying gifts just for the sake of giving *something*. It doesn’t feel good for me and I have my doubts about what it does for the recipient. Can they tell when they’re an obligation?

    Anyway, thanks for these thoughts on being a better giver and receiver.

  9. Good stuff Michael. A mundane example is neighbor Christmas gift treats. We live in a densely LDS-populated Utah ward. It got a bit comical to see who was going to drop by a treat, and if it was close to Christmas, that put you in a bind to have time to reciprocate. Then you worry about the optics of clearly not intending to give them one or you wouldn’t have waited so long. We finally talked about this with several neighbors and ward members and decided to scrap all the treat gifts and instead hosted a neighborhood fireside cocoa and donuts event in the driveway and everyone brought donations for the food bank instead of treats. Now I wonder if that may have offended the neighbor who like the caretaker really enjoyed gifting his/her handmade treats!

  10. I admit that this is hard for me. My best hope is that the feeling of guilt will prompt me to “pay it forward” and become generous, rather than simply act more generous.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Well articulated, thanks.

  12. Jack Hughes says:

    It’s human nature to look at life as a zero-sum game, as we live in a world where resources are finite and sometimes scarce. You can easily drive yourself mad trying to balance out the universe through reciprocal behavior. And one of the most basic religious teachings is the ethic of reciprocity, or the Golden Rule (“do unto others…”), which has been adopted in some form or another by nearly every faith tradition on earth, so there’s that. I suppose the point of the OP (and by extension, Christ’s teaching) is that one’s motivation for gift giving should be founded in love, which is infinite and transcends this mortal plane of existence.

  13. As I read your thoughts, I can’t help but think of the gift giving culture in Asia. It is very much a reciprocal / obligation exchange, and it’s common in business. To me, it often felt akin to bribery since you are giving these personal gifts to decision makers, and everyone knows it’s to obligate them to your interests. It definitely took some getting used to, and at times made it nearly impossible to do business while remaining what we considered ethical (although this gift-giving culture is ancient and deep-rooted in these societies–they go against American values, though).

    We used to keep wrapped but unmarked neighbor gifts on hand in case someone dropped something off, just so we could save face basically, and if someone gave us something, we’d give right back immediately. If it looked like we’d have a surplus, we might start brainstorming recipients.

  14. This is an excellent reason for giving some gifts anonymously. With the anonymous gift you lose the possibility of strengthening a social connection, but you also avoid creating a burdensome social obligation. In a lot of cases, that’s a net gain.

  15. I’ve observed that many men, including myself, can be caught in a cycle of giving gifts for various occasions (Christmas, Valentines Day, Birthdays etc) to avoid or minimize criticism from the other party involved. Not uncommon at all, based on my interaction with other LDS men.

    Makes no sense at all and I need to stop doing such things.

    I’ve found greater joy in giving random gifts to people just because I have no obligation to give them anything at all.

  16. Luke 14:12-14
    12 ¶ Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee.

    13 But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind:

    14 And thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.

    What might this suggest about our practices of gift giving?
    What are the implications of this for the principle of reciprocity?

  17. My experience is the same as that of Bro. B. where many neighbors bring a small something to our doorstep. It’s Utah so I have to wonder if they are gifting to the whole ward. Our family is grateful but we don’t intend to reciprocate.

  18. Martin Pelegrina says:

    Que exelente reflexion nunca lo vi asi. Gracias .

  19. I just encountered the same situation. (And I’m in big secular Los Angeles so there isn’t any subtext.)

    A very lovely person who runs an after school enrichment my grandson attends just gave to me (the usual driver), my grandson and my daughter (mom) small but very sweet and unexpected gifts. This is a woman who has turned her storefront “classroom” into a Winter Wonderland. It’s clear that her intent is to enjoy the holiday and spread the spirit of joy as far as she can. If there is benefit to her business or if she (not much “if” here) takes a tax deduction for a promotional expense it doesn’t diminish the intent or the personal connections.

    I did not see this coming — although I’ve expressed my delight with her decor several time and she got the point that I got the point. I know that she did the same thing for every other family she does business with.

    How can I not want to return the kindness? We won’t see her until the holidays are over but I will make her some chocolate truffles or bake her something and unapologetically take it in my thanks for her being her and to share her spirit of joy and generosity. She will know it’s because she gave a gift too but I’m betting she’ll also know that I offer it in the same spirit — once she provoked it.

    I refuse to complicate it more than that with thoughts of obligation or guilt. It’s Christmas. It’s a time for generosity and connections. I’m all for it wherever it pops up it’s head — especially since when it comes along unexpected it’s The Best.

  20. Posts like this are why I consider BBC my Sunday School. Very thought provoking. Thanks!

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