The power of giving gifts

By Alex P. Vidal

“God never gives someone a gift they are not capable of receiving. If he gives us the gift of Christmas, it is because we all have the ability to understand and receive it.”  —Pope Francis

IS the giving of gifts mandatory during the Yuletide season?

We give gifts supposedly to promote the reputation that we are nice, generous people.

And we do it apparently to put pressure on the recipient to reciprocate.

When, for example, we take a basket of fruit to a friend in the hospital, it is because we would like him to do the same for us, writes Roger Highfield in The Physics of Christmas.

“Gifts have the power to make or break a relationship, for they are indices of how we interpret the status, power, taste, and emotion of our peers,” Highfield observes.

Adrian Furnham, a psychologist at University College, London, on the other hand, says gifts reveal how socially aware we are in perceiving others.

According to Furnham, it’s not just the issue of whom we choose to give presents to or how much or how little we spend on those presents, but what sort of gifts we select.

And when our motives for giving a particular gift are incorrectly interpreted, Furnham says our faux pas is on display for all to see.

For example, the gift of a fluorescent fluffy toy might be thought an insult by someone who perceives himself or herself so sophisticated.

“As a channel of communication (a gift) has limited capacity because the range of messages is few and the language not well known,” Furnham explains.


“Perhaps the gift-phobics who discover the exchange of gifts between family and friends do so because they don’t speak the language and agree with Wittgenstein, who so wisely noted: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’”

Whitfield says psychologists have now started to decode the language of gifts in an effort to unwrap this seasonal ritual.

They have studied different gift occasions and assessed the various stages in the gift-giving process, the function of gifts, and the norms that govern who may give what to whom and why certain gifts—for instance, money—are often considered inappropriate.

Men and women behave very differently when it comes to Christmas gift giving, adds Highfield.

At the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, David Cheal had great difficulty interviewing as many men and women for one study of Christmas gift giving.

The reason soon become clear: women remain the principal actors in gift transactions.

The annual hunt for that ideal present is overwhelmingly seen as women’s work. Indeed, among couples it is usually the women who maintain the gift economy.

Men tend to give more valuable gifts, less often. Part of the reason is that men generally earn more than women.

But women have been said to dominate Christmas giving perhaps because it is seen as a family festival and women are the “kin keepers,” taking more responsibility for maintaining family and social ties.


One of Cheal’s respondents explained that her reason for giving is “to be a message. You have interest in that person, whatever the message is at the moment.”

Highfiled explains that other studies have shown that we are little different from the Hazda in that gift giving often puts the recipient under an obligation, exploiting a reciprocal instinct that places the act closer to pure barter.

Much of Christmas giving actually reveals a more calculated character, following certain rules and obeying certain taboos.

Carole Burgoyne and Stephen Lea of the University of Exter, England say: “To violate these rules, to give too little, or indeed to give too much, can be insulting.”

One traditional taboo is the gift of money, according to Highfield.

If we hand out checks and cash, he explains, “the materialist underbelly of Christmas is laid bare for all to see. As a result, money is not a universally acceptable medium of exchange.”

Gifts of money also imply a lack of effort and insight on the part of the giver, according to a study of 92 students conducted by Burgoyne and David Routh of Bristol University in England.

Another study by Lea showed that this was particularly so when money was given by a child to a parent, but not when it was a gift from a grandparent or parent to a child.

Highfield says today’s psychologists see gifts as a way of initiating and maintaining relationships—just as we observed in the case of Henry III.

According to Bourgoyne, Christmas tends to differ from other giving rituals, such as birthdays, because it is more likely to involve a simultaneous exchange.

In relationships where reciprocity is expected, there can be serious consequences of the failure to give a gift.

These are more likely to occur in closer relationships, such as between siblings, parents and children, or girlfriend and boyfriend.

“The nonappearance of a gift is likely to lead to broken relationships and family row unless there is a very good explanation for it,” Burgoyne says.


Nevertheless, Christmas is an occasion for the relaxation of other rules of gift giving, notes Highfield.

Because seasonal presents are handed out more widely, they are often less intimate and personal than birthday presents. This, of course, can be an advantage for those who are trying to start up a relationship, he adds.

But gently does it, warns Burgoyne: “Gifts that are too expensive may signal a level of commitment and impose a sense of obligation that is not wanted by the recipient. Thus, an inappropriate gift—one that is either too cheap or expensive—or one that seems to expose a lack of taste on the part of the donor—carries the risk of rejection.”

Gifts are also excellent way of atoning for sins, but they may be rejected if judged as not sufficiently compensatory, Highfield remarks.

“If they are too compensatory, however, they also can cause an offense. Precise reciprocity could be seen as an unfriendly act if one breaks the rule of approximate worth—that is, giving a return gift of approximately the same monetary value,” he warns.

(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor of two daily newspapers in Iloilo.—Ed)