We all know that our focus at Christmas should be on the ultimate gift that God gave us in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, but we can’t help feeling giddy over the gift-giving and receiving that has become the staple of December 25th. The returned receipts we collect on December 26th indicate that our level of disappointment often rivals our initial anticipation.   

Psychological research on how gift-giving affects relationships hints at a no-win situation. Studies suggest that good gifts only affirm similarity between people, and so do little for the relationship. Poor gifts, though, may lead people to question their connection with another, thereby damaging the relationship. Studies tend to focus on how gifts affect perceived similarity because finding a ‘kindred spirit’ is thought central to successful relationships and reliably predicts relationship satisfaction (Murray et al., 2002).

With that in mind, I thought I’d give you a few helpful tips that might prepare you for some pretty awful gifts at Christmas:

1. We only hurt the ones we love! This adage holds true with Christmas gift-giving. Sometimes people get so overwhelmed with finding the right gift for a boss or coworker, they neglect the people that are closest to them – not because they don’t love you, but because they do!!  Christmas gifts are often given out of FEAR, not love, and more often than not, its the people we care about the most who get put off until the last minute. Reason? The comfort factor. We are more afraid of how the boss will respond to a bad gift than our family. I’m not saying its a good reason, but its a reason. The best response in this situation is to empathize with your loved one’s stress and keep your expectations low for the moment. Then wait until about February once the craziness of the season has died down and talk it out. The gift issue may be just the tip of a deeper boundary problem. 

2. Know the giver’s perspective. Understand how your loved one thinks about gift-giving. Some people go shopping and find a gift that they absolutely love and then assume, “Because I love this gift, I’m sure my friend will love it too!” Some buy generic gifts because they don’t want to show favoritism. Others are afraid of disappointing you so they go with gift cards. Some people like to be adventurous and try new things. They cannot stand the idea of being told what to buy. They would rather risk your disappointment to maintain the surprise factor. Understanding the personality of the gift-giver often helps you appreciate the gift.

3. Not everyone has the gift. Remember the Gary Chapman book- The Five Love Languages? Let’s face it. Gift-giving is an art.  Some get it! Other’s don’t! In this instance, look for other ways that people show love – touch, quality time, words of affirmation etc. If you really want something specific for Christmas, make a list and tell them to check it twice. Mind-reading can be exhausting!

4. What does the gift mean to you? As psychiatrists, we get the reputation of being overly-analytical, but I do believe we need to ask ourselves, “What is the meaning that I place upon the gifts that I receive (or don’t receive) at Christmas.” These deeper issues (am I loved, am I understood, am I a priority, am I special) are probably in your unconscious mind throughout the year but become more apparent during the Christmas Season. Wrestling with these deeper questions will make for more satisfying relationships and Merrier Christmases apart from the good, the bad, and yes even the ugly gifts you get 🙂 

5. Look on the bright side. After all you can always use the bad gifts you get for next year’s White Elephant Party! Just make sure the people who gave them to you do not attend!!

Question: What’s the worst gift you’ve ever gotten for Christmas? How did you respond? (no names please)

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