March 27, 2008

Housewarming Parties

Stupid Question ™
Feb. 3, 2000
By John Ruch
© 2000

Q: Why aren’t housewarming parties considered selfish and rude? They’re just a way of asking people to buy you a bunch of presents.

A: Housewarming is our custom of celebrating the move into a new home with a party to which guests bring gifts.

It’s handed down from Britain (though similar customs no doubt have existed elsewhere). The first known use of the term “housewarming” in this sense dates to 1577 and refers to a feast celebrating the opening of a shoemakers’ guild hall.

Later citations make it clear that guests were supposed to bring gifts to private-home housewarmings. In modern custom, the gift is usually something small and of practical household use.

A housewarming was just the beginning of the English gentry’s endless cycle of hospitality, which included regular house-visiting parties and feast-day open houses.

Today, housewarming is more cross-class and more common in a society where people move and buy houses more frequently. But like all gift-giving, its purpose remains the same—to strengthen social bonds.

A housewarming would indeed seem rude and preposterous if it were a financial transaction; imagine if a new mall opened and asked customers to come bring it gifts.

But housewarming is a social transaction based on friendship and community. And most sociologists view gift-giving as the alternative economy that drives it.

Sociologist David Cheal has identified four social effects of gifts: 1) “material support” for the recipient—money or useful goods that stabilize their place in society; 2) creating “normative obligations,” an implicit demand for reciprocal gifts which keeps everybody in debt to everybody else and therefore friendly; 3) the symbolizing of “social identities”—gifts that emphasize the social status of the giver and/or recipient; 4) communication of “inner states of the person,” such as feelings between giver and recipient.

A housewarming often involves all these effects.

First, it’s not entirely selfish; in exchange for gifts, guests get a party (which may be minor financially but huge emotionally). The social bonding effects are multiple: The gifts, which are usually displayed publicly, provide the giver with group social standing and may communicate their personal feelings; the host is now obliged to attend the givers’ future parties; and the givers are welcomed into the host’s private territory.

As their useful nature makes clear, the gifts are intended as “material support” for a host who presumably just sank a bunch of money into moving. The gifts are also a way for friends to be symbolized and remembered, effectively making them permanent parts of the household.

And the party may establish the household’s social roles. For example, American women are usually more involved in gift-giving than men, emphasizing their perceived role as the “expressive” member of the relationship.

All that, plus you don’t have to go out and buy your own cheese grater. What a custom!

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