The Twelve Days of Christmas
Perhaps the most famous Christmas gifts given since the gold, frankincense and myrrh are those of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Even starting with a partridge and a pear tree is quite generous, never mind that you'll have sent a mini pear arboretum by the 12th day. But just how many gifts would my true love be sending me? Marcus DuSautoy asked his audience that question last year as part of his Oxford Mathematics Christmas Public Lecture:
There's a nice way to quickly calculate how many presents there are. On each day of Christmas you have a "triangular number" of presents: one, three, six, 10 etc. The interesting thing is that over the whole 12 days it becomes a three-dimensional problem. If you stack the presents on top of each other, you're building up these triangles until you get a kind of pyramid.
'We call these the "tetrahedral numbers", and we can fit six of these pyramids together into a box shape with 12 presents along one side, 13 on another, and 14 on the remaining side.'
Multiplying 12 by 13 by 14, and dividing by the six pyramids, gives the total number of presents: 364 (or 'one for every day apart from Christmas', according to Professor du Sautoy). It's a lot of fowl to accommodate under one roof – not, perhaps, a recommended gift-giving strategy.
Should you give cigarettes for Christmas?
Of course not. But for a while, tobacco companies did promote the idea amongst Chinese people that ciggies were the gift that kept on giving. Albeit giving you lung cancer. The British Medical Journal remembers this golden-fingered age:
From 1980–1999, BAT and PM employed Chinese market research firms to gather consumer information about perceptions of foreign cigarettes and the companies discovered that cigarettes, especially prestigious ones, were gifted and smoked purposely for building relationships and social status in China. BAT and PM promoted their brands as gifts by enhancing cigarette cartons and promoting culturally themed packages, particularly during the gifting festivals of Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival to tie their brands in to festival values such as warmth, friendship and celebration. They used similar marketing in Chinese communities outside China.
Is it better to give a goat?
The donation of goats to people in the developing world - or similar items to third parties in lieu of a Christmas gift - has become popular over the last few years. But does it really do any good? Would you be better off just stuffing some money in a charity box? The Journal of Managerial Psychology has looked into this question
The results indicate that it matters for the recipient that third-party gifts are of specific goods rather than simply money. In Study 1 the benefit to the recipient was little affected by whether the gift was a goat, books or money, but in Study 2, where the respondents were asked to compare receiving a specific third-party gift with a monetary gift, the specific gift was rated more pleasing, and showing more care for the recipient, regardless of whether the respondents had actually received any such gift. Thus, the previously reported research, which has clearly shown the unacceptability of money as a gift seems to generalise to some degree to third-party gifts. In both studies the respondents indicated that specific gifts were better than money for the beneficiary. In Study 1 the average estimated benefit to the beneficiary from receiving the goat or books was significantly higher than receiving the equivalent sum of money. In Study 2 the definite gift was held to be of considerably greater benefit to the beneficiary and to show more care. There was also significantly greater trust that the beneficiary would receive a definite gift than a gift of money
Do you love the gift? Do you really love it?
It's better to give than receive, according to the sort of thing that falls out of a cracker at this time of year. But it's actually pretty stressful to give - partly because it's hard to judge how well your present has gone down. Jessica S. Robles has carried out some research into this:
Giving and receiving gifts requires managing the positive identity of one's own face as, say, a gift-giver, as well as the face of the gift-receiver. One must perform the expected identities of “being gracious” and “being appreciative.” Part this performance is expected to occur through what Goffmancalls “response cries.”
Because gifts are often meant to be surprises (hence the wrapping) in formal gifting occasions, it is expected that upon first viewing, the gift-recipient will emit some sort of “natural” immediate response, though oftentimes, once the gift is visible to all, response cries will be choral.
As Hua, Wei and Yuan note, gift offerings and acceptances are not just a communicative event, but a politeness event. Gifting is also culturally shaped. Hua et al. analyze gift offering and acceptance in Chinese contexts, arguing that the unique Chinese meaning of the word “gift” does not have the same sense or expectations as is involved in U.S. notions of “politeness.”
Is it worth writing to Santa?
Pauline Bremner explored a wide range of research into Christmas gifts, discovering - amongst much else - that parents do peer over the shoulder of Santa to get ideas:
The two sources of information making up [the interpersonal] category were ‘letters to Santa/Wish lists’ and ‘use of other people’. The mean findings [...] highlighted that parental respondents identified ‘letters to Santa/Wish lists’ as the most important source of information; in particular for mothers, older parents, parents with AB classifications (except education), single fathers and parents with only children and low education. The ‘use of other people’ as a source proved to have more neutral importance for a majority of respondents with similar demographic characteristics as noted for letters but, in addition, parents with only children and parents with college education found this source important.
So much of Christmas is tied to consumption - geese and baubles and crackers and amusing jumpers - and nowhere is this more obvious than in gift-giving. According to research by Carol Farbotko and Lesley Head, even the most environmentally-minded of us can put principles to one side when doing Christmas shopping:
Understanding how and why commodities become gifts (and vice versa), we contend, provides a new way of understanding some of the complex ways in which social relations are implicated in sustainable consumption. We use a study of Christmas gifting practices within a group of environmentally engaged households to begin to empirically explore if and how environmental considerations are expressed in the gift economy. We conclude that the fashioning of a particular social identity, namely, the ‘green consumer’ can operate very differently in the context of gift-exchange than in the context of non-gifting consumption.
Is it okay to regift?
There's been some research into the dynamics of regifting which, as the Seinfeld fans amongst you will know, is where you take a gift that someone has given to you, and pass it on to someone else.
Elizabeth M. Ormandy has explored the activity:
The purpose of this research was to use a multi-method approach to gain an understanding of the gift-giving behaviour of re-gifting. The focus of this thesis was to explore the qualitative findings using quantitative methods. The first stage of this research used qualitative methods to gain an initial understanding of the behaviour of re-gifting. The main conclusions from this phase are as follows:
- Individuals are motivated to re-gift for three main reasons; the characteristics of the gift, the situation and the relationships involved.
- Individuals re-gift because it is convenient, and the gift they originally received did not match their needs, wants or expectations.
- Re-gifts are described as generic items that cannot be personalised or do not have any sentimental value.