Christmas gifts give joy — and stress

2007-12-11 00:00

As well as being a time of excess, stress and family pressure, Christmas is a festival of considerable religious and secular complexity. It is a time of ambiguity, inconsistency and, some would say, hypocrisy as Christians fill their home with pagan symbols and shoppers discuss the real meaning of Christmas.

Many people look forward to giving and receiving gifts. Ritualised gift giving, in any society, is a way of consolidating important (and not-so-important) relationships. A gift is symbol of commitment — accepting a gift symbolically indicates a willingness and obligation to continue a relationship with the gift giver. More significant gifts symbolise greater commitment by both giver and recipient.

We are obliged to give gifts to relatives. It cements the social fabric, ties us together and symbolises our bonds. Not receiving a present from a mother or son immediately sets off a train of questions about love, commitment or ungratefulness. The insecurities and passions of a close relationship can be triggered by a gift not given or one that is obviously inappropriate.

Behind the seemingly innocent exchange of gifts is a complex set of rules and behaviours. Aside from the obvious matters of kindness, thoughtfulness and taste are the more subtle dynamics of reciprocity and obligations, psychological and economic debts and understanding and obeying rules and conventions.

Socially, women take responsibility for Christmas shopping and gift wrapping, and give more gifts in their own names than do men. But men give more substantial gifts and fewer token gifts than females. Children receive a large share of the gifts, while being passive performers in the ritual: hanging up empty stockings, writing letters to Santa and asking questions about how he gets down the chimney.

Young, unattached men often view giving gifts as “fiscal foreplay”. However, there is a strict sliding scale of the value and size of the gift in comparison with the stage of the relationship. Too expensive a gift too early in the relationship can feel like a sexual bribe, while small, cheap gifts well into the relationship can be seen as the sign of a cheapskate.

Choosing presents is fraught with difficulty because gifts are imbued with so much meaning. They can be statements of influence, power, taste, sympathy, status and emotion. Gifts “show” rather than “tell” others what you think about them, so it is important to be sufficiently socially aware to know what to give to whom and when, to have confidence in one’s taste and to know that one’s motives will be interpreted correctly.

Broadly, gifts fall into six categories.

• Gifts with a personal history.

Gifts that are nostalgic or are a memento of a particular time are very special. They may be an heirloom, or have been owned by a famous person. Heirlooms can acquire a sort of sacred status if carefully restored. They can provide a great sense of family continuity, which extends beyond death.

• Gifts that take time and effort.

Some gifts, such as hand-crafted items, take considerable time and effort to produce. The hand-carved, sewn, embroidered or painted item may be of limited monetary value, but of enormous personal value to the recipient.

• Surprise gifts.

The unexpected gift is special and valued precisely because it was not anticipated. The surprise might relate to when the gift is given, how it is given, or by whom.

• Exotic gifts

More people are buying gifts from abroad. The item from abroad is of indeterminate price which cannot be compared here, although it may represent a “bargain” for the giver.

• Gifts with a message.

Some gifts are chosen because they deliver an explicit message to the recipient. Many are passed off as “joke” presents: hot, spicy chewing gum (for the loud-mouthed), exploding cigarettes and cigars (for sexual harassers), gift-wrapped boxes of imitation faeces (for those who talk crap).

• Monetary gifts.

Nearly all money gifts are given by parents or grandparents to children or grandchildren, which appears to be the only acceptable way to give money. But money is generally unacceptable as a gift for two reasons. First, it is impersonal. It says nothing about the relationship of the donor and recipient and gives no clues about the personality or tastes of the giver, the recipient, or their relationship. The giver has made little or no investment of time, thought or effort. Even a gift voucher says more about the giver. Second, it might cause offence: the giver assuming he can “buy” the recipient or that the recipient needs the money.

It’s no wonder Christmas is a time of stress. So much to do: so much to understand. So many subtle signals. So much cost to getting it all wrong. So many unfulfillable expectations. No wonder there are now people who are shopping consultants. They interview you about the recipients, get a budget and get on with it. Hardly the true spirit of Christmas, but a gift to some.

• Adrian Furnham is a professor at London University. He is a regular contributor to the BBC and writes for the Financial Times, Telegraph and other papers.

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