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There were always some very gooey caramel brownies and lots of other tantalizing desserts, usually with sprinkles.

That was what I always noticed first at a church potlatch. And rightly so, for if you didn’t get a dessert (or a few) your first time through the line, there were only crumbs left. There were usually crock pots with meatballs or pasta, all in various shades of beige and brown, Midwest comfort food that was easy to prepare and large enough to feed a crowd.

I also remember the variety of ‘salads,’ which was perplexing in that so many of them contained fruit but also fluff and gelatin and often something like Snickers bars and very few were actually comprised of leafy green vegetables.

The idea of a potlatch is that everyone brings something to share and then there’s a wide variety of foods to sample and enjoy. A church potlatch is usually different than one hosted with a smaller group of family or friends, but the idea of sharing the food preparation so that one person or family isn’t responsible for doing all of the work is appealing to most people (especially those that do the work of hosting).

But Marcel Mauss regarded the potlatch as an elaborate celebration that included the host’s presentation of wealth and distribution of that wealth as the most significant form of gift giving. The giving of gifts, after all, says a great deal about what a society values and who a society values.

The Kwakiutl native peoples, living along the Pacific Northwest coast of North America, further developed the potlatch system of gift giving. They gave gifts as part of the potlatch, which included tangible items such as food, boats, and blankets, but also symbolic articles such as a hatchet-shaped copper plate.

The Kwakitutl people lived in a highly stratified society and the potlatch system showed the organization of the nobles down to the commoners by honorific titles and a system of seating according to rank. The seating system then also demonstrated the ranking of gifts given. The distributor gave generously, which bestowed a high rank, yet the gifts given at the potlatch were considered an investment of capital as it was expected that the items would be returned, with interest. For example, if the host gave a blanket, the grateful recipient would then be required to give the host two blankets by the end of the year. However, it was not about the accumulation of goods, but to demonstrate one’s rank by the level of generosity one could display.

I find the idea of being generous as a form of status quite intriguing. Most of us do not have the resources to give to every person or organization in need, so we find ourselves ranking and weighing out the value of various individuals or organizations to see who is most worthy of our gifts. Many of us also seem to have an expectation that our gift will somehow be returned or reciprocated in some way.

Is that what generosity is really about?

And yet, those of us at The Reformed Journal humbly ask for your generosity. Would you consider a donation today? Thank you!

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Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

One Comment

  • Susan B Grefe says:

    I have been giving monthly for a couple of years. I read this every day. Thank you for the insights and great stories.

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