Burning Man: A Gift Economy at Work

art car, burning man

The Burning Man festival operates on a gift economy, this means you share what you own and help one another out. When you meet new people whom you especially like, you give them a treat or share your food and drinks with them.


Napoleons: perhaps too small a gesture?

One of the treats I took were Napoleons. I gifted these as Dutch candy, unsure if they actually were, the name rightly suggests a French origin. Looking back I wish I had thought about my choice of treats a little longer. Something longer lived maybe, something that might be cherished as a keepsake for years to come. Although, on this point other burners might not agree with me, because it’s not about what you give, it’s about why. All the same, Napoleons can make a stranger smile and are a nice gesture to break the ice. (Not that ice breaking in the middle of the Black Rock Desert is ever going to be a major issue).

Virgins in the spotlight

I received a little jar especially made for first timers, who are affectionately known to experienced burners as ‘virgins’. The girl, who gave the jar to me, twice asked me if I really was a virgin. I must have looked like a ‘professional burner’. I duly assured her that I was indeed a desert ‘virgin’ and she handed over the jar and vanished into the heat haze. Be warned: ‘virgins’ are given very special treatment so you could struggle to find one to give your treat away to.

Surprised by strangers

After salsa dancing for hours at a hangout completely lost to time, I emerged to find my bike decorated with a saddle cover, gifted by someone unknown. This really made me laugh and I actually wore it on my head during the festival to pay my respects to the stranger who gave it to me. No idea if he or she saw me with it, in my heart I hope so.

No bracelets or key hangers for burners

I also received a bracelet and key hanger with a Scrabble tile, which someone had nicely decorated with the Burning Man logo. Although caring and beautiful in spirit, I wouldn’t advise you to take treats such as these. They are lost quickly and so run a little contrary to the Burning Man mantra of ‘leaving no trace’.

Volunteers serving drinks unnoticed

During my time at Black Rock City, a little to my discredit, I never gave anything to the volunteers serving free drinks in the heat of the day. These volunteers selflessly serve drinks from party tents or art cars rather than exploring Black Rock desert themselves. Therefore make sure to treat them well if you are heading to Burning Man.

Playa gifts you take home

When you leave this place, you will have a heart filled with stories and amazing pictures of a dusty place each day crowned with a wonderful sunset. Think of your special ones at home and take souvenirs. Avoid taking ashes from the statue of the Burning Man, that ritually burns at the festivals climax, rather take the iron from his frame as this carries an enduring energy and presence that will live with you for many years to come.

And what are you taking on your next trip to share with others?

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