One of Burning Man’s best known and least understood facets is its “gifting economy,” in which no commerce takes place except for the sale by Burning Man of drinks at its Center Camp Café, and ice at Arctica. Everything else – drinks served at bars, food dispensed at a playa “diner”, trinkets given away by Burners, costumes provided by one of the costuming camps – is given free, or “gifted,” to the citizens of Black Rock City.
Many people misinterpret the gifting economy as a bartering system. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no direct exchange of a gift for a service, a service for a gift, or a gift for a different gift. In fact, most of the entertainment and art you see on the playa is gifted to the community, as are costumes, decorated bikes and art cars.
Many people bring gifts that they’ve created especially for that year’s Burning Man. They often feature the theme as well as the Burning Man logo. Some of the favorites we’ve received have been amulets, bracelets and stickers. One man gave out Wheat Thins and drew a smiley face on each one with cheddar cheese spray. People will go to Center Camp with cases of bottled water to be given away. Ben and Jerry once brought thousands of ice cream cups and gave them away to their fellow Burners.
For our part, we’ve brought or created gifts every year. One of our most successful gifts was developed for the Green Man year. We purchased cardboard fans and printed on each one, “Fan of the Environment” along with the Burning Man logo and the year.
During my first year, my son and I brought hard candy to give out. In later years, Judie and I have handed out bookmarks with haiku poetry and coasters festooned with the Burning Man logo, among other gifts.
People are non-judgmental about what you gift them, although they may express delight if they really love one of your gifts. In other words, you don’t have to overdo preparation of gifts (in point of fact, you don’t even have to bring gifts), and homemade is better than store-bought.
Ideas to help you develop your gifts include linking to the current year’s theme (Fertility 2.0 for 2012), using the Burning Man logo as a centerpoint, creatively reflecting your theme camp’s activity or something about yourself, or just bringing a fun or useful item.
One thing to remember about gifts is that they sometimes turn into MOOP (matter out of place), so you should avoid gifts with feathers or other removable pieces that are likely to become strewn across the desert. Helium balloons are a no-no as they end up either consumed by birds (often causing serious injury), or distributed widely around the Black Rock Desert. LNT (Leave No Trace) should be one of your rules of thumb about your gift.
Whatever you decide on, don’t stress out over your gifts. They should be fun for you as well as the recipients. Great value is not required or expected. A personal touch is always appreciated, and ideas that reflect on the festival’s whimsical, profane or erotic atmosphere work particularly well.
By the way, you’ll receive one of the best gifts on the playa when you volunteer as a Lamplighter. We design a new charm every year, and they are genuine collector’s items for Burners. So come on out any day of the Festival at 5 p.m. and gift yourself to the community by helping to light the city.