Every year as the traditional calendar tells the American people that their year is coming to a close, they begin reenacting a set of rituals that both binds them to their ancient roots and reaffirms their relationship to each other. Christmas (named for the most powerful deity in their religion) appears at first glance to be a thoroughly contemporary event, but in truth its essential nature was set in the mists of antiquity, and continues to show the national character of America and its people. Each child opening a gift from Santa Claus (a benevolent watcher-elf) takes his or her place among the countless others who have come before. Christmas is but one of the deceptively modern-looking traditions with timeless roots in this nation where the past and the present meet. In truth, the threads of history that bind America to its origins is always hiding in plain sight.
Gift-giving often attracts comment by observers of American culture. Foreigners are quick to attribute wintertime gifts to America’s advanced commercial culture, when the Americans themselves have never been in doubt as to the roots of their civic and religious traditions. The form of this explosion of gift-giving that occurs every winter is unique to this nation, despite outward signs of convergence with other post-industrial societies, and has its roots in the multitude of traditions that were practiced by Americans across their homeland (the western and eastern hemispheres). As closely as can be put to foreigners, gift-giving in America involves a pretense that nothing in return is expected. Sometimes this pretense is taken to the point where the identity of the gift-giver is unknown to the receiver. However, as usual, the undercurrent of understanding particular to Americans gives unique context to an otherwise normal cultural practice. To be thought well of by one’s peers in America, one must always endeavor to return the favor, whether in the form of another gift or not. What appears to the foreign observer simply to be an unanswered gift has meaning that Americans implicitly see, and have understood for as long as history has recorded the practice. As a result of its long roots, winter gift-giving now seems to come as naturally to Americans as reciprocal social giving comes to Easterners. Some of the names and details have changed in the modern incarnation of Christmas, and certainly Americans’ mastery of technology has enabled them to ship gifts to family, friends, and acquaintances (a level of friendship between stranger and friend, unique in social character across modern societies) across thousands of miles, but the essential nature of winter gifts retains its immutable Americanness.
Across the Internet, yet another technological wonder by which American culture has gained admirers across the world, Americans reenact social rituals which have bound them to each other since time immemorial. The pretense of informal relationships that both masks and facilitates the forming of deep bonds has been noticed before, and nowhere is this ancient practice more closely melded to modern technology than so-called social media. Outsiders fret over whether the closest equivalent to “friend” in their language allows for the types of relationships maintained over native American social websites, but the ages-old fluidity of casual social contact in America makes technologically-enabled relationships a perfect fit for American friendships. As with other things, the Oriental mind may face tremendous barriers in accepting American modes of thought. Stodgy Eastern concepts of social closeness are challenged by the American manner of conducting relationships, a traditional practice yet again brought to the world’s attention by misleadingly modern delivery.
In annual holiday celebrations and in forming social bonds, Americans display the timelessly unique qualities of their culture despite cutting-edge technological packaging and apparent commonalities with foreign cultures. In this modern age, globalization seems to threaten young Americans’ cultural inheritance by promoting sameness with other, less unique cultures. However, America has survived to the present with its core culture changing remarkably little; there is less reason to worry (or celebrate, for some) than prognosticators on university campuses might suggest. For the foreseeable future, American culture is its gift to the world that looks to keep on giving.