Tick, tick, tick… – choosing and giving Christmas gifts; includes related articles

Tick, tick, tick… – choosing and giving Christmas gifts; includes related articles – Cover Story

Leslie Vreeland

Picking out Christmas presents for loved ones is the seasons most nerve-wracking ritual. The wrong choice can explode the closest of bonds. Why are gifts so hard to give–and to get–and what can you do to defuse the experience?

IT’S THANKSGIVING: a glistening turkey bedecks the table. The scent of cinnamon hovers in the oven. Inhale deeply, and you can even smell … the fear. That’s right: less than 30 shopping days left before Christmas! Chances are, if you’re like most American consumers, you already know that. Chances are, too, that you find it annoying. You resent the relentless commercialism of the holidays, the nagging feeling that you must identify and purchase the right present for each person on your list, the endless strategizing, shopping, wrapping and exchanging.

And then the unwrapping, when you cringe in dread, waiting to see if your spurt of spending paid off: Will they like it? Are they just pretending? Why can’t I tell? Then it’s your turn to take center stage. You smile bravely as your unwrapping reveals … ahh … a sweater in a putrid shade of green (“Oh, it’s perfect! It will go with my favorite skirt”) or … hmm … the latest power drill, though you have trouble even screwing in a light bulb (“It’s great. Now I can put up those shelves in my den”). Such playacting, such stress, such exhaustion.

NO QUESTION: if the holidays are hell, then the gift-giving ritual is one of its red-hot centers. “For most people,” says William Doherty, Ph.D., professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, “giving gifts is the most nerve-wracking part of the entire season.”

Why must a ritual that we believe should be relaxed and joyful be so tortured? The answer is that we pack a lot of psychological baggage into those niftily wrapped packages. While a cigar is sometimes a cigar, a gift is almost never just a gift. We romanticize the exchange of presents as a simple, loving gesture, but in fact it’s “a fundamental form of human communication,” says anthropologist Richard Handler, Ph.D., of the University of Virginia. Gifts come freighted with hidden meanings and purposes. When exchanged between members of tribes, business acquaintances or heads of state, gifts are tokens of status, respect and appreciation. “They create and cement alliances, allegiances and partnerships,” explains Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

In more intimate relationships with family and friends, they take on more personal–and powerful–meaning. “Gifts are symbols of our love,” says Ronald Nathan, Ph.D., clinical professor in the department of family practice at Albany Medical College in New York. As such, they signify what we think of each other, what we know of each other. Around each gift swirl essential questions: How well do you understand me? How well do you love me?

Many givers get the answers wrong. Each year Americans fork over $40 billion for holiday presents, or an average of $75 for each person. And up to $4 billion of that money goes for gifts that recipients don’t appreciate, according to Wharton professor Joel Waldfogel, Ph.D. Woe betide unsuccessful givers. They hear the silent cry: If you don’t understand me, how well can you love me?

WITH SO MUCH AT STAKE, gift giving becomes a high-wire act that sends the stress meter over the top. Picking presents unleashes a fury of calculations that could tax a Nobel economist. A proper Christmas gift must fulfill some basic requirements, discovered social scientist Theodore Caplow and colleagues, who, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, scrutinized the gift-giving habits of 350 Muncie, Indiana, families. It must surprise the recipient, it must show familiarity with his or her tastes and its cost must reflect the perceived emotional value of the relationship between the giver and “givee.”

Another basic rule: reciprocity. “You want to give a gift proximate in value to the gift you expect to receive,” observes Doherty. And since you give based on what you expect to get back, you factor in what that person has given you in the past. Receiving a gift that seems to be far more expensive than the one you give–or far less–is more than embarrassing. It can stir resentment in the purest heart as well as raise questions about motive and character. “A man who gives a woman an unusually elaborate or expensive gift may leave her feeling that he prefers to offer an object instead of his love,” notes Dickson Diamond, M.D., a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C.

FIGURED INTO THE gift-giving equation, too, is the relationship of the recipient to the most central people in the family: gifts given to others must be proportionate in value to those given the primary figures. “So, for example,” Doherty explains, “you’d never give your nephew, even your favorite one, a gift that seems worth more than the one you give your son.”

Spouses must not slight each other’s parents; they can’t give their own mother or father a gift that dwarfs that presented to their parental in-laws. So, too, must siblings be careful not to favor their own brother or sister at the expense of their brother’s or sister’s spouse: a perceived puny present to a brother-in-law gets the tension wires humming.

Of course, parents giving gifts to their adult children had better be fair and equitable, because their kids are weighing and measuring the size and value of every trinket and every flourish of ribbon presented to each sibling–and have been since they were tots. One misstep in the gift department can reawaken every sibling rivalry and felt inequity of childhood. Moreover, stepchildren mustn’t be overlooked for biological offspring.

All told, the calculus is so complex, says Doherty, that “it’s like flying a 747 where you have to concentrate on wind, fuel and airspeed all at the same time.”

IF GIVING GIFTS is fraught with tension, so is getting them. Despite all our experience, we have an expectation that others will know exactly what we want and give it to us. The inevitable disappointment is keen. It’s not merely disappointment, of course. It’s hurt: you discover that the people who are supposed to love you most don’t even know your size. “All the frustrations of not being really known by our loved ones are made real,” notes Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman, M.D.

Yet the ritual requires that the unhappiness be disguised. We are obliged to be gracious receivers. “Just saying `thank you’ is not enough,” Doherty says. “If you do that, you’re not being gracious.” Fulsome praise for the giver’s taste and thoughtfulness are de rigueur.

Of course, such graciousness doesn’t last much beyond the unwrapping. Some recipients hesitantly approach givers, fearful of wounding them, with explanations that the size is wrong, they already have one of these things at home–and could they please return the oh-so-thoughtful present? Others send emissaries—their spouse, for example–to cautiously question the giver about the intention behind the gift.

Still others simply clam up, tote the unwanted gifts back home–and give them away to someone else. Fully 28% of respondents in a recent American Express survey admitted to practicing such “gift recycling.” Passing along presents is an ethical dilemma for many, but Doherty for one, doesn’t see a problem. Yes, recycling “violates the social norm,” he acknowledges. “People would be mortified if others found out they did this.” Yet the practice isn’t unethical and is even understandable. “The gifts we recycle are usually neither valuable nor unique,” he observes. In other words, they violate one of the key rules of giving: they do not resonate with the recipient.

IS THERE A WAY to avoid the toll that holiday gift giving takes on our psyches and our pocketbooks? Some families, tired of the pressures of rampant giving and getting, have devised some solutions. Among them:

* Set limits. Cap the number of gifts one person can give to another or the amount of money that can be spent per present.

* Give gifts only to the children in the family. Or pick family names out of a hat: each member buys a gift only for the person on the slip.

* Prepare a list of what each family member wants, along with their sizes. Pool money to purchase one big gift for each person.

* Shop early. Pick up a present when something catches your eye as right for a person and put it away in the closet till Christmas.

* Use your imagination. Arrange for theater tickets, a special day’s outing (a visit to a spa, say) or a weekend trip.

And when all else fails, simply grin and bear it. Remember Christmas is but one day–and you’ve got 365 days until next year’s giving go-round.


“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”–Little Jo in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Common lore has it that lavish gift giving has been a seasonal tradition ever since the Magi crossed the sand to celebrate a certain birth in a manger with offerings of gold, frank-incense and myrrh. Not so. Gift giving is a relatively modern practice: it was grafted onto Christmas only in the late 19th century, when the growth of American industry began to pump excess goods into the market.

Until then, the holiday was more of a holy day. Most of what Christmas spending there was went towards food and drink, observes professor Russell Belk, Ph.D., of the University of Utah. And whatever gifts were exchanged were largely homemade and centered on necessities rather than luxuries.

Then in 1874, Macy’s New York department store created a fantastic holiday season window featuring 10,000 dollars worth of imported manufactured dolls. With that enticing display, mass produced, store-bought gifts were suddenly catapulted into fashion.

Still, many Americans had difficulty at first accepting the idea of giving — as personal, or sacred, gifts–items which were manufactured for and sold in impersonal, or profane, stores. To help soothe guilty consciences, department stores started offering special “Christmas” gifts–rather than ordinary stock–for holiday purchase.

As a further sop to nervous souls, merchants also came up with the ultimate Christmas cover-up. To hide the manufactured goods, they layered them over with a new notion: decorative wrapping paper. Today, one of the unwritten rules of the holidays is that Christmas gifts must be swaddled in fancy paper before they can be exchanged.–L.V.

Sweating a Sweater

One year, I happily showed my girlfriend each gift I’d received from my family, but when I got to a white sweater that my aunt had given me, I complained, “Who gives a boring sweater to a 17-year-old for Christmas?” As I continued to rip into the gift, my girlfriend watched silently, then handed me her own present. When I opened it, I was shocked to see that it was exactly the same style of sweater. I backpedaled like crazy, saying: “No, honey, I like yours better. It has a nicer collar–really!” Even thinking about it now makes me want to crawl into a corner.–P.V.

Family Revenge

I am a great gift giver, but a rotten receiver. Over the years, no matter how hard family members have tried to select presents I would like, I’ve usually found some fault with them.

Finally, they were forced to give up. Now they send me out to choose my own gift. I have to buy it, wrap it up and tote it to the festivities where I open it and exclaim, in surprise and with pleasure, that it’s just what I wanted. Afterwards, they reimburse me for it.–O.G.

Size Does Matter

It was the first holiday that my brother-in-law was spending with us after his marriage to my sister. I thought long and hard about what to get him and decided on onyx cufflinks and a shirt to wear them with. He seemed happy with the presents, but shortly after the unwrapping my sister hesitantly approached me and said he was a little hurt because his gift seemed to be so small compared with what I’d given others, and he thought perhaps that I didn’t feel he was a full member of the family. I assured her that wasn’t the case, that in fact, I’d commissioned someone to make the cufflinks especially for him, and, in the coup de grace, that his gift had actually cost more than hers.–FL.

Lover Knows Best

For months before Hanukkah, my friend and I would stroll down the street, looking in store windows. I’d point out what I really liked–a piece of jewelry, a scarf, a purse–and hoped that he would take the hint. Invariably, though, he’d always give me not the item I’d chosen, but a pin, scarf or bag that he insisted was “bigger” “more expensive” or “better for me.” The power plays finally got to be too much for me: I found someone else who was “better for me.”–H.G.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group