Approach Christmas like an anthropologist to avoid gifting catastrophe

Family time.
Family time.
Image: Reuters/Natalie Behring
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It’s the end of the Christmas gift-giving flurry. You’re staring at mounds of torn wrapping paper, feeling:

a) The glow of mutual generosity;

b) The guilt of consumerism;

c) The sadness of one who has been given socks, again;

d) All of the above.

If part of you dreads shopping for gifts and another part of you is excited; if you hope you’ll get it right this year, but are afraid you won’t; if you want to spend a modest amount but can see it spiraling out of control—you are not alone. It is possible to break out of this cycle. You just have to channel your inner anthropologist, and approach your family like the group of wild homosapiens they are.

Scrutinize traditional gift-giving practices

Gift-giving isn’t a straightforward process, but it’s a highly studied one. A whole strand of anthropological study, starting with the 1925 essay The Gift (published as a book in 1950) by Marcel Mauss, one of the fathers of the discipline, focuses on how giving and receiving gifts functions as a kind of social lubricant—albeit one with strict codes of application. Rituals, anthropologists note, are important across cultures, with Christmas being the big one in the modern West. Decades of psychological study, meanwhile, have examined the processes that push us to spend, to expect gifts, and to feel hurt or cherished by who picks what for us.

How can you navigate your way through the buying and giving season, and come out of it with stronger relationships and gifts you actually like? There are some extreme answers.

One option is to suggest you and your family buy no presents at all, giving the money instead to charity. There’s evidence that some people might increasingly be going that route: GoFundMe, the world’s largest social fundraising platform, recently announced that charitable donations made through its platform doubled year-on-year in the months of October and November—the run-up to Christmas—in 2018. The problem with the no-present route is that some family members (especially the kids) might find it too joyless and stark.

Another route is more ethical presents. That can take some research, but it’s becoming more common, says Dom Desmond, an art director who started a side-project called Critically Endangered Socks, an online-only sock company that donates 20% of its revenue to one of five endangered animal charities (the business isn’t yet profit-making, and the rest goes back into the enterprise.) “The world’s in a tricky place,” Desmond tells Quartz. “Businesses do have the opportunity to help, and I think consumers want that too.” 

A third option is a gifting non-proliferation treaty, like the one described by my colleague Rosie Spinks. The problem she’s trying to solve is “gifting creep,” whereby even if we don’t want expensive gifts we imagine a disparity between our own cheap offerings and others’ generosity, and feel shamed into spending more. Rosie suggests one elegant alternative. Each member of her family fills a stocking for one other member, ensuring that everyone has some presents to open and no one can out-buy anyone else. One of my friends has a similar pact with their (large) family: Each adult is randomly assigned another adult, and buys them one generous, thoughtful present.

Field notes from a family party

If none of these solutions will wash with your gift-loving family, then making a real change to your gift-giving and receiving patterns might take some careful observation. So here’s a challenge: Do your research this year, and plan to make a change the next time Christmas rolls around.

We tend to forget, in the flurry of buying slippers and scarves, that a large part of gifting is symbolic. For one person, giving a gift on time might provide the evidence that you truly care. For another, the “proof” of love is that a present is well-chosen. An exercise can help you recognize which kind of gift receiver you are: Think of a present you loved, and then work out why. Because it fits perfectly? Because you asked for it? Because it was hidden at the end of a treasure hunt?

Gary Chapman, a pastor and author of a massively successful book series on relationships, theorizes that everyone has their own way to express and receive love, which he calls a “love language.” Chapman has developed a schema of five personality types, defined by the main way people like to receive love, either through words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, or physical touch.

With effort—and depending on the size of your family—you can work out what other people value most. This takes careful observation and, crucially, as much objectivity as you can muster. What truly makes your family members happy? If, for example, your father simply wants to spend more time with you, could a better gift than a tie be theater tickets for the two of you? Or—since the theater is more expensive than most ties—perhaps something as simple as a walk in the countryside.

It’s natural to use gifting to express your own love language (for example with a self-penned poem if you’re a “words of affirmation” person), but if you’ve experienced negative reactions to your efforts before, why not try a different tack? Perhaps your mother would prefer your help cooking dinner than being presented with a silver photo frame.

Jessamy Hibberd, a London-based clinical psychologist, says that relationships are at the center of our needs, in part because we’re a species that evolved to survive in groups. “We feel rewarded by positive social interaction and giving a gift is one example of this—it activates the pleasure systems in our brain and stimulates the release of endorphins,” she says. “This can sometimes make it feel pressured—wanting to get it right and to make the other person happy…There can be lots of emotions involved from happiness, to guilt, to disappointment.”

There’s no “one size fits all” approach to gift-giving. But there are definitely ways to make it more likely you’ll give and receive presents of emotional value to your loved one. The first is to identify the things you value most (in “love language” terms, your preference for hugs over large electrical items, or whiskey over a home-made sweater) and communicate it as best you can. If doing so to your whole family seems an impossible task, perhaps start with just your spouse/mother/kids and see how it goes.

Then this Christmas, like a good anthropologist, consider your family’s gift-giving traditions, and observe as much as possible while enacting them: Which gifts truly delight? When are acts more appreciated than items? Can you give the gift of your full attention in a conversation, your willingness to play a game, or your offer to do the washing up? The effort could lead to the reward of enhanced group cohesion: having a better time with your siblings, parents, and in-laws.

Of course, you’ll have to make field notes if you’re going to put any of it into action a full year from now. No one said academic research was easy.

This story was updated to clarify that Marcel Mauss’s The Gift was first published as an essay.