Gift Giving an Annual Ordeal
At this stage in your Christmas shopping, you may not be surprised to learn that in some Germanic languages closely related to English, the word 'gift' also means 'poison'.
There is a long history of gifts of tainted food or other articles being used to poison their recipients. But I doubt that the dual meaning of the word 'gift' stems from such literal acts of harm. Rather, it expresses a shrewd psychological insight, because gifts can lacerate as well as delight.
Context is everything. Something treasured when given in particular circumstances can be venomous if given under different conditions. I once knew a man who couldn't afford to give his wife a ring when they got married, but who finally gave her an expensive wedding ring many years later, on the day he announced that he was leaving her for another woman.
And even the most generously given gift almost invariably obligates the person who receives it to make some return, either materially or in kind. This feeling of debt is captured by the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson's comment, 'we do not quite forgive a giver'.
The study of gift giving has long interested anthropologists, for in all human cultures the exchange of objects and favours is central to social life. Rules or conventions govern who should give gifts to whom, the kinds of gifts appropriate for different occasions, how they should be received and what the givers can expect in return, and so on.
But at the same time, in most communities there are often considerable differences between the nice sentiments and practices that are supposed to accompany the giving and receiving of presents, and what really occurs. However much people may attempt to deny it, gift giving usually involves a great deal of hard-nosed calculation.
This is particularly true at Christmas, and is part of the reason why some churches in the past---and to a lesser extent today---were strongly opposed to making Christmas the occasion for widespread gift giving.
Unlike other gift-giving events in our society, such as birthdays or weddings, Christmas celebrations involve the simultaneous exchange of presents. Because gifts can be an expression of the actual or desired relationship between individuals, there is a sense in which Christmas giving requires people to make an annual assessment of where they stand with friends and family. The trick is to ensure that these assessments will be mutual, which perhaps helps to explain why Christmas is such a stressful time for some.
One of the many anecdotes about gift giving I have collected over the years concerns two elderly brothers who were quite close. Each Christmas they would exchange presents of moderate value, having long agreed that they would not spend too much money on each other.
Then one year, they independently chose exactly the same present, a bottle of good sherry from a well-known maker. They immediately decided that they would never give each other Christmas gifts again. Although they probably did not express it in these terms, they had achieved perfect reciprocity, and there was nothing to be gained by continuing the annual cycle.
But such balance is infrequent. More common are the moments of awkwardness, when a person at a large family or workplace Christmas gathering gives a present to someone who has nothing for them. Or when the gift that someone has brought turns out to be a totally inappropriate return for what they have received, being either too valuable, too cheap, or too intimate.
People often attempt to avoid these embarrassing incidents of mismatched assessments by agreeing in advance to cap the value of presents. Or they may use the previous years' gifts as a guide, although this is not much help when it comes to new members of a family circle or workplace.
A friend, newly married and keen to demonstrate his generosity and affection, bought his wife a fancy sewing machine for their first Christmas together. He took it along to the party where his wife's relatives customarily exchanged their gifts, but as soon as it was unwrapped he became aware that something was wrong. Only then did he realise that he had married into a low-value-Christmas-gift family, and everyone was annoyed and embarrassed by his big-hearted present.
However the most striking example of the unsettling power of an inappropriate gift comes from personal experience, and it involved a wedding rather than Christmas present.
I met my wife when we were both teaching at the same university, and when we married we invited some, but not all, of our colleagues to our party. One uninvited colleague sent a parcel via another guest to my father-in-law, whom she had never met. Inside was a valuable and exquisitely woven island mat, her present to him for our marriage.
Although my father-in-law was an avid collector of tribal art and crafts, the gift carried such an ambivalent aura that he locked it away in a drawer where it remained for ten years. He then turned it over to us, but we feel so uncomfortable about it that it lies at the bottom of a cupboard, more than twenty years after it was first given.
As our society becomes more culturally diverse, and with increasing intermarriage between people from dissimilar backgrounds, the task of choosing gifts becomes more fraught with difficulty. Because people may place different meanings on the one object, gifts that are attractive to a purchaser may be quite offensive to the recipient.
A couple I knew gave their South East Asian daughter-in-law a complete set of wooden kitchen utensils for Christmas, because she loved to cook. But she saw the gift of wooden utensils as insulting, and she was still complaining about this supposed---though certainly unintended---slight many years later.
The lesson from all of this is simple---if you want to enjoy an untroubled Christmas, don't look a gift horse in the mouth. And take care on the roads and in the water.