Updated: Aug 19, 2020
The Great Giveaway—have you heard about it? No, its not a seasonal sale at the department store, or something you need to stand in line for. It’s actually a very ancient practice, and while its not actually one I’m participating in its lessons are still profound and completely appropriate for this time of year.
In the Potawatomi language the word for the great giveaway is minidewak, which means “they give from the heart”. This is an ancient ceremony and celebration where the Native Americans, and the people of the Canadian First Nations would gather and give everything away. Yup, simply given away, and the man doing the giving was the chief. He would give away his food, his clothing, his horses, his medicine, his tobacco, his pipe.
Can you imagine being left with nothing? Can you imagine the great leaders of our world gathering up a bunch of people and saying, “here, take my cars, my fancy watch, and all of the money in my bank accounts”? You’d think they’d gone crazy, right?
Why would someone practice this? Because the power of the giveaway comes from the giving away; the releasing so that you have greater flow in your life. The people who participated in this practice understood it as a symbol of abundance and a demonstration of faith and understanding that we are all connected to life as the greatest source of supply.
Generosity is a power because of what it takes inside to give generously. It takes strength, great courage, commitment, joy, happiness and a sense of safety inside. It is a power because of where it puts you in your own being. I understand that usually within a couple of days of giving away all of his possessions the chief would be gifted back many new things. Clothing, food, blankets would all be given to him. This reciprocal giving and receiving was a symbol of the tribe continuing in an abundant and healthy way, and ensured that the chief often had much more to giveaway the next year.
This true spirit of generosity comes up in me every now and again, although I wish it was more often! I had given a hat to a friend. It was a baseball cap that I had been given by a special group of people here in Calgary. They had done a limited production of these special hats that weren’t for sale, but simply offered to members of our community. It was a nice hat, it had special significance, but I just gave it away.
A year later, this same friend was wearing a beautiful necklace. It was one of those lanyard types, made of beautiful bead work. I thought it was lovely, and told them so—I was especially tuned into lanyards because I needed one at the time to hold an ID badge for a volunteer committee I was one. My friend took it off their beautiful necklace and said, “you know, I’d like to you have it. You gave me a hat a while ago and it is my most favourite hat. I wear it all the time, it means so much to me. I’m so grateful to you that I’d like you to have this necklace.” Now, true confession: I had no idea what they were talking about. I couldn’t remember giving them anything, and I certainly could recall any hat, but I accepted the necklace anyway (smile and nod)!
I was so honoured by their gift because I learned that the beading had been done by a family member, and that there was special significance in each colour of the beads. Of course, a couple of days later I remembered the hat, and the feeling that I had when I gave it away. I knew it was special, probably even valuable, but it just felt right to give it away. I had no expectation that the gift would be reciprocated. But it was, at the perfect time, to fulfill the perfect need. I cherish that necklace, I am so grateful for it, but I also have a feeling that I too, will one day give it away.
You see, giving is a power, receiving is a power and the fuel that generates them both is gratitude. I think sometimes we have trouble receiving. Its that feeling of, “Oh, thank you for the gift, but I feel so badly that I don’t have something for you too.” I’ve been there. If you are always giving, you’re not receiving. If you receive, but automatically give in return, you’re not receiving either—and don’t even get me started on competitive gift-giving!
Sometimes we receive, but we’re thinking, “Ew, I don’t want that. It doesn’t match my decor”. Or, “Ugh, that’s just an ugly hand-me down. I can’t use that.” I’ve also been there. Here’s the lesson of the great giveaway: the people that were receiving the gifts were very grateful and honoured because the ability for a man (or woman, but I believe the chief was always male) to do such a thing meant he was great man.
Robin Wall Kimmerer explains the feeling that imbues the ceremony of the giveaway by saying that, “In a culture of gratitude, everyone knows that gifts will follow the circle of reciprocity and flow back to you again. This time you give and the next time you receive. Both the honour of giving and the humility of receiving are necessary halves of the equation”.
So my prayer for everyone (including myself) celebrating the holidays this year is that we may give and receive with a grateful heart. No matter the gift (even the weird office-exchange gifts), may they be given and received with a grateful heart. Given with a heart that is grateful for the ability to give; with the knowingness that to give is a natural part of the flow of life, and a remembrance that all that is given always comes back. (Actually that was the original intention behind the practice of tithing…but things got a little confused with that one along the way.)
May we receive with a grateful heart knowing that to receive is to be connected to life that's full of blessings, and that when we receive our blessings they multiply and multiply and flow back through the connection of life to which we are all inextricably linked.
Fun fact: the essence of the spirit of the great giveaway is carried in the Balsam fir—it is literally the essence of the generous spirit! How perfect that we automatically bring this aroma, and often literally a whole tree into our homes over the holidays, and stuff presents underneath it! So next time you see a Balsam, you can give it a great big hug because it’s the living embodiment and symbol of the natural fulfillment of your highest needs. We also put a tiny bit of pure Balsam fir essence, along with Silver Fir essential oil into our Communal Comfort candle, so you can have that beautiful feeling around you throughout the year, and it’s much easier than hauling a tree inside all the time.
Quote from: Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge,, and the Teachings of Plants” 2013 by Milkweed Editions.