12/23/2012 11:55 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2013

Giving Gifts, Receiving Belonging

I was born to a Christian family, but was never baptized. Once or twice a year, I go to church in an attempt to connect to something ancient; I sing and muse on Christianity's pagan origins; but that is it. So how is it that when the Christmas season rolls around I throw myself full hog into gift-giving to my enormous family?

An anthropologist colleague tells me that my Christmas frenzy is a modern manifestation of an ancient gesture -- gift giving is a value of exchange that results in solidarity. Forms of obligation are formed in the act. Indeed, in his book, The Gift, Marcel Mauss, an early 20th century French sociologist and anthropologist, suggests that gifts are given with an expectation of reciprocation.

It dawns on me: unconsciously, I have been trying to keep my fragmented family together through me by gift giving. I am certain no one in my family gives gifts to as many family members as I do. But in so doing, I feel as if I connect them all to each other through me; and I want that family togetherness to be something they work for too. This may not be pretty but it is how clans, communities and enemies have survived for millennia.

December sales figures prove that I'm not the only one unconsciously enacting the ancient gesture of anthropological values of exchange at Christmastime. The modern family has become continually more fragmented in terms of geography; we are more and more prone to reach for some kind of solidarity, however fleeting, through gift giving at Christmas.

We give because we want to feel a part of something. My gifts may be my unwitting answer to that ancient something that I seek when I venture into a Christian church: a deep unbreakable connection that, in the theater world, we call ensemble.

In fact, gift exchange in my usual world, the theater, is a very big deal on opening night. Historically flowers were given after a performance to congratulate the actors; interestingly these flowers were often stolen from graves. Stage actors never have been big earners! This tradition has now evolved into opening night gift giving that embraces the entire cast and very often the producers, designers and stage crew. It serves to unite everyone in celebration of the ensemble's future success. A collective support is sealed in the exchange and an ensemble is formed.

In an act that has been replicated in centuries of Christian pageantry, the three kings from the east paid homage to Christ with gifts representing kingship (gold), God (frankincense) and death (myrrh). Their three gifts could be interpreted as having an expectation of reciprocity. After all, this figure of Christ is supposed to have grown up to be the King of kings, the son of God who died for human sin.

According to the story, he did not disappoint; he fulfilled his destiny and united a vast number of humans in a belief system that is most certainly a religious ensemble. We could perceive that the action of the three kings' value of exchange resulted in the birth of a religion that created a solidarity that to this day unites huge portions of the world. If the three kings can unite nations through gift giving, I can certainly allow myself, even if it may be an illusion, the belief that I can unite my family through mine.

Beth McGuire is an assistant professor of acting - adjunct at Yale School of Drama and a professional voice and dialect coach and is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.