“Hobbits give presents to other people on their own birthday. Not very expensive ones, as a rule, and not so lavishly… but it was not a bad system.”

The Fellowship of the Ring

What a simple change. Reversing the direction of giving to recenter the focus on others.

Let’s play this out.


  • Chips away at our entitlement and pride.
  • Batches your gift-gathering to one day.
  • Spreads the gifts you receive on other’s birthdays over the whole year (practice delayed-gratification).
  • Gives ample time to be as intentional and prepared as you want.
  • Necessitates more thought behind each gift.
  • Subtly influences a closer connected circle of relationships.
  • Instead of reinforcing selfishness and individualism, encourages belief in the perpetual reciprocity of the gift spirit.


  • Can become a contest of “self-righteous selflessness.”
  • Reduces the days you give which may lead to lower net generosity.
  • Increases social pressure in the comparison of gifts given.

Let’s look closer.

Instead of reinforcing selfishness and individualism, encourages belief in perpetual reciprocity of the gift spirit.
I once wrote about Jimmy Carter’s ‘Crisis of Confidence’ in the American people who he accurately diagnosed to be “worship(ing) self-indulgence and consumption.” That was forty years ago. We are much farther along that path because of technological progress and the national prosperity.

I ran into a friend who was stressed and anxious about the political orientation of our country. I was anxious too and empathized. I asked my friend if he would ever talk with someone from “the other side” about why they believe the things they do. He would not.

We have to get outside ourselves and our privileged echo chambers to un-sequestered ground for conversations. With polarization and partisanship deeply rooted, there is no limit to the examination and uprooting our practices and beliefs should undergo.

For restoration, we can look to a native mindset-
“If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow.”

Perpetual reciprocity of the gift spirit expects that when a gift is given, it will continually pass on to sustain the life of generosity in a community. Lewis Hyde writes about this and its connection to the creation of art and its personality and intentionality towards the recipient of gifts (producing another benefit in this system- the encouragement of artists!!).

Imagine giving the gift of paint made from seashells and then receiving on the recipients birthday a painting endowed with the same love you poured out in grinding the shells, and more! Imagine giving a book that changed you and does the same soul work in another, or giving a hand-made instrument that ignites a flame of future balads to be shared!

The spirit of an artist’s gift can wake our own.

The Gift

It might require more thought and work, but I believe that right now, in the middle of a pandemic and after, we will have to give more effort and love than ever before.

Every practice requires intentionality. How we do birthdays now can be good and beautiful as we appreciate those who are in our lives.

I don’t believe we can do away with this tried tradition.

I do believe that we can practice Tolkien’s reversal in small ways- even in our own families. I can’t help but dream of a celebration to give and celebrate giving in spite of ourselves.

The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him- it cannot fail…

Walt Whitman

Originally, I wondered about societal implications, now, I see only familial thriving.

While not perfect, played out in certain groups, ultimately, this reversal is better than our current system. If your argument is about tradition, implementation, or idealism, please comment below holes, fallacies, alternatives, and arguments you have against this idea.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

Lewis Hyde, The Gift

J.R.R Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Author: Ben Fridge

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