Christmas is a time of giving and receiving. Many people find both activities difficult, not least because presents are imbued with meaning. They can be statements of influence, power, taste, sympathy, status and emotion.

It is not only a problem of to whom one gives presents or not, and/or how much/little to spend, but more importantly what sort of item to purchase.

To accept a gift is (at least in part) to accept the identity it imposes. But gifts fortunately can be rejected, or at least exchanged. We are warned "Not to look a gift horse in the mouth", but perhaps the antonymous proverb is much more useful, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!"

Gifts may have symbolic qualities - a gold watch for good riddance, travel luggage encouraging a long journey. "Hint-type" presents may be rejected - deodorants for those with odour problems, cosmetics for those with bad skin, a watch for the habitually late.

Many "joke" presents are of this kind. Joke gifts may reflect a rather insecure relationship as well as a hint. But gifts may be an expression of guilt about a year's (or longer) neglect to attempt to compensate for some other deficit (such as woeful inattentiveness). Gifts make excellent items to use in the atonement of sins, but they can be easily rejected as not being sufficiently compensatory.

Exchanging received presents for a more suitable item is an acceptable form of rejection. The many people returning presents to the stores after Christmas (and clearly not always because the size is wrong) neatly illustrate how gift giving can go badly wrong. Does anyone receive a present they actually want to keep?

The basic trouble is that gift-giving is "showing" rather than "telling" what you think about others. Gifts are one of the ways in which the pictures that other have of us, in their minds, are transmitted materialistically. As a gift-giver, one needs to be sufficiently socially aware to know what to give to whom and when, to have confidence in one's tastes and to know that one's motives will be correctly interpreted. The subtlety of exchange can be best seen when the whole thing goes wrong.

It is precisely because we give people something "suitable", as we perceive it, that individuals are so frequently given the same sort of present. How many executives receive bottles of whisky? Presumably then, when a person receives a wide variety of unusual presents that are in some sense incompatible, the question must arise as to why the gift-givers have such very different pictures of the recipient and what his or her "real identity" actually is. Similarly, the message in the gift can account for the disappointment of so many women when they are given 'utility' household gifts.

Gifts can be an important source of dominance, particularly if one cannot reciprocate. As the proverb has it: "Small gifts make friends, great ones make enemies". Occasionally, adults can embarrass each other by the generosity of the present and so (often quite deliberately) incur one's debt.

Even gift reciprocity can be seen as an unfriendly act if one infringes the rule of approximate worth - that is, giving a gift in return of roughly the same monetary value. This tit-for-tat transforms the relationship from one of social sentimentality to one of impersonal economics. The rejection here is in the refusal to play the role of a grateful recipient.

Some groups try to prevent gift inflation. Organisations and families sometimes come up with rather good collective solutions to this complex problem, such as setting a limit on a present's cost. Another way of coping can be to set aside certain goods or services as specifically gift-related and somehow not part of the mundane economic world. Confectionery and gift tokens play an important role here.

Clothing is the most popular, but often most difficult, gift and the reason for this is its automatic individualisation. Clothes describe recipients by age, sex, appearance and style, and can be given to both sexes with impunity. They also express the giver's understanding of the person, in addition to their own taste. However, this type of gifts carries with it a very real chance of rejection, if bought in the wrong (unflattering) size, colour or fabric. Such an error exposes the gift giver as lacking knowledge of the recipient, or perhaps their own lack of taste.

Intangible gifts are rare. Most are objects, which can be wrapped and displayed. It seems that less than 2% of gifts are hand-made, and those are mostly made by young children and given to parents and grandparents. The idea of giving a humorous gift remains comparatively rare. Americans take their Christmas gift giving very seriously. This may be different in the UK, particularly amongst the young.

Gifts differ enormously on many dimensions, but six features make them especially valuable.

1. Personal History: Gifts that have nostalgia value are very special. They may be an heirloom, or have been owned by a famous person. Heirlooms are likely to acquire a sort of sacred status if carefully restored. But they may equally signify a past occasion shared by the giver and recipient. They may represent a place, an occasion, or an event shared by the two that has special meaning. Souvenirs with special significance.

2. Sacrifice: 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.

3. Surprise: 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. Brides describe gifts selected from a wedding list as "cold" because they lack spontaneity.

4. Helping/cheering up others: When a gift is given with the express wish to cheer or help, it is often thought of as extremely thoughtful and useful. It is an index of care; a substitute for being there.

5. The "perfect thing": The better people know each other, in terms of values, personality, humour and hopes, the more special and subtle they can be in choosing the perfect gift. A perfect gift is the one the recipient really wants, enjoys and appreciates, and possibly would not buy for him or herself. In short, ideal gifts are those that are still treasured after many years. The perfect gift is wanted, needed, deserved and appreciated. It has to be very thoughtfully and carefully chosen.

There appears to be no relationship between the cost of a gift and the extent to which it is liked or preferred. The best predictor of how much a gift is appreciated is the amount of time, and mental and physical effort put into choosing, making or preparing it.

Presents can be categorised rather nicely by two factors: sentiment and substance. The first refers to carefully personally chosen (even hand made) presents, as opposed to mundane, everyday gifts such as appliances or catalogue items. The second refers to how substantial (usually in terms of cost) the gift is.

In a continuing romantic relationship, sentiment is high and expectations are that substance should also be significant. Jewels, expensive clothing or personalised gifts that require time and insight are expected. These gifts serve as beacons to the future of the relationship or touchstones to its past. Both parties expect these gifts to be retained as mementoes and possibly heirlooms.

Last, there is low sentiment with low substance. Examples are gifts put in the office pool: these are blindly given and blindly received. The lack of personalisation reduces them to generic gifts. They are frequently recycled into other "grab bag" events.

The distance of a relationship affects the proportion of token gifts to substantial gifts (the former increases with distance, the latter decreases). Males give twice as many substantial gifts and many fewer token gifts than females. Further, the flow of gift value between adults and children is heavily imbalanced, although the balance may now be redressed in later life, since grannies no longer desire bath salts and violet creams from their children but have iPods and Smartphones on their wishlists instead.

Three times as many gifts are sent down one generation than are sent up one, and more than three times as many pass down two generations as are passed up two.

The modal gift is from a married couple to a closely related individual. The least frequent instance is of a male to a married couple. Children do not normally give gifts to their parents as a couple: separate gifts to mother and father are expected as a matter of course. But a gift to parents jointly may be given jointly by two or more children. Primary kin, alone or in combination, account for about half of the total number of gifts given.

Some sociologists have talked about commodity noise: If you have the means to buy everything and it is all available to you, a small gift message may be lost (what do you give the person that has everything? The answer used to be penicillin.) One solution is to increase the number of signals in the hope that the repetition will ensure the message is received loud and clear. Giving multiple gifts may thus be a means of ensuring that a message concerning the recipient's significance to the donor is received and properly understood. Redundancy is a regular feature of ritual. Heavy giving is clearly one way of ensuring that a message of love is effectively transmitted. But does this then increase expectancy, and especially in the case of young children, influence how demanding a personality a person may have?

Women shoulder the vast majority of the Christmas shopping, wrapping, decorating and worrying that inevitably descends on the average household in December. They also give more gifts in their own names than do men, and they purchase and wrap nearly all of the joint presents. However, females' relatives are not favoured above males', and men's relationships with their kin are as well marked by Christmas gifts as are women's.

Females are disproportionately active as Christmas gift givers, giving 84% of all gifts, and receiving only 61%. They divide their gifts equally between males and females. Male givers without female "collaborators" are relatively rare (16%) and most of their gifts are given to females. Gifts from males to males are rare (4%) compared to gifts from females to females (17%). Women are much more active gift givers than men at Christmas, tending to select the gift if part of joint giving, and giving more gifts singly.

Joint giving does not imply joint receiving. More than 10% of gifts are received jointly by male and female and most of these are given jointly from one couple to another.

Young, unattached men often view giving gifts as "fiscal foreplay". In fact there is a biological tendency for them to do this - the use of food in exchange for sexual access and grooming has been documented in our closest ape relative, the chimpanzee. 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.

Old etiquette books say that women who accept costly gifts are incurring sexual debts, just as men's magazines say that rich old men can attract beautiful young women by buying them expensive gifts. In fact, men worry more about being exploited for money than women worry about being used for sex. Alas romantic gift giving, along with other associated activities, usually stops with marriage.

Rules of presentation are important, which is why the cards and gift-wrap industry does so well. At Christmas, for example, gifts are beautifully wrapped, nearly always by women, before they are presented, often in an instantly recognisable way (gold and silver, red and green, or with Christmas symbols). Wrapped gifts are displayed as a set (under the tree), but after unwrapping, gifts are not displayed.

Gift giving expresses the value of relationships. Most gifts are scaled to the formal relationships between giver and recipient. There is a delicate balance of value and kinship position, e.g. at Christmas, husbands are expected to buy their wives presents which are more valuable than hers to him, and more valuable than his present to his parents, in order to express the relationship "I value you more than my parents".

More and more people are buying gifts from abroad. The item from abroad is of indeterminate price (usually) because it cannot be compared here. It may represent a "bargain" for the giver. These gifts can make the recipient feel as if they were being thought of in the absence of the giver, especially if it is something very appropriate to the recipient. They are particularly important for families/girlfriends/boyfriends left behind for business trips. They strengthen ties in separation. These gifts are difficult to get, and have a rarity value and possible foreign cachet at home, which increases the ‘special’ factor of the gift. This shows a significant "effort" in the purchase and transportation, negotiating a foreign language and currency, carrying it home etc. However, it should be pointed out that what may look good in a foreign setting can look inappropriate at home. Yet, on balance, it seems a very good idea!

Ritualised gift giving, in any society, is a method of dealing with important, but insecure, relationships, whereby gifts are offered to persons or collectives whose goodwill cannot be taken for granted but is desired. A gift is a symbol of commitment: accepting it 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.

What essentially makes a gift special is the ability of the giver to singularise the recipient - to show their understanding of, and attention to, the hopes and desires of others. Singularisation expectation makes impersonal gifts inappropriate and romantically worthless, even if they have high economic or symbolic value.

We want to believe that we are loved for those characteristics that make us uniquely valuable. We want to feel that we are the focus of our lover's devotion, that someone finds us extraordinary. Singularising gifts are given in order to give the beloved those special feelings and to express our desire to please him or her

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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