Somewhere in the holiday season between shoppers breaking down Walmart doors on Black Friday and the wise men showing up with gifts for the baby Jesus, my town has been holding an event known as the "Abundance Swap."
The name could be somewhat misleading because participants do not trade items one-on-one and bargain in the hope of getting a good deal. Instead, they are asked to donate several things they'd be happy to receive as gifts, and after an introduction, to take three of anything they like in the room, with no trading at all. It's an introduction to the gift culture, as if the whole community were one big family.
Started 11 years ago as a social invention, the abundance event now attracts hundreds of people, filling the old armory, a big downtown venue. They come bearing gifts, receive nametags, and socialize while awaiting the first of three rounds determined by the color of one's tag.
Asked one year why I volunteered on the staff, I replied, as a joke, that I was hoping to get a big TV. A few moments later a women arrived and asked for help bringing in an item. In her station wagon, as you will guess, was a TV. Of course it went to someone else, not a staff member, but it showed the generosity that the event hopes to elicit.
What's the serious answer about why I and many others volunteer? Because it's fun to help a little as people give stuff.
At worst, the items are what you'd find at a garage sale; at best, what you'd hope to unwrap as a gift. No money changes hands. With rare exceptions, a participant's three items go to one set of people, while the giver takes items donated by other people.
When they are not circulating to find something they want, participants stay with the gifts they are donating. This enables them to converse with people attracted to what they brought, and tell a little about the history of the items.
Does anybody try to "game the system," as if they were a Wall St. banker? Of course, but most people are delighted by what Bill Maher would call a "new rule:" give freely, then take what you want.
The event came out of a men's group called "The Relentless Optimists," which sought to encourage social inventions. It was the particular brainchild of Jeff Golden, then a local radio host. It's now real enough to have its own website, so you can check out the details by simply googling "Abundance Swap."
As staff, I have asked many participants why they come. For some it's the atmosphere, so different from black Friday and the other consumerism of December. For others, it's a way to get nice stuff they can't afford for the kids' Xmas gifts.
It's a time when folks are experimenting with many alternatives to consumerism . In the case of the magazine Adbusters (which had a hand in inspiring Occupy Wall Street), its contribution is an analysis of a culture that spends millions on inculcating the message, "you are what you can get" and "he who dies with the most toys, wins." Some people are urging a gift-less holiday season. And some are sharing the abundance they have, in a form that allows the special joy of giving. The current theoretician of the gift culture is Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics.
Although the event in Ashland is currently held in a privately owned venue, it has also taken place in a city building and in a church hall. Anybody can start an Abundance Gifting event by getting use of a space with some tables, volunteers, and, in advance, a helpful local reporter or two.
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