All I want for Christmas: Rules for gift-giving

Sociologist Boris Holzer explains the unwritten rules for gift-giving and where they come from.
© Image by Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

For Christmas, the boy Leo gives his dad a colourful picture he drew himself, while his mother gets nothing. After all, she recently confiscated his game console. Anne really likes her father-in-law, so she surprises him with a super-expensive cell phone for Christmas, while her husband gets the usual combination of a dress shirt and socks. Or take Thomas and Lea, for example, two friends who aren't big on picking out presents. Lea ceremoniously hands Thomas a ten euro note from her wallet. Surprisingly, he had the same practical idea and hands her one in return.

Who knows whether these kinds of gift-giving mishaps actually take place at Christmas? At any rate, such cases go against all of the intuitive rules for gift-giving. "These rules are unwritten but nonetheless effective", says sociologist Boris Holzer. First and foremost, they determine who gives what and how much to whom. This is because: "The central rule for gift-giving is that the gift expresses and confirms something about the relationship itself".

Two sides of the same coin
Every relationship has its own logic and history that the gift should correspond to, without focusing primarily on the material value of the gift. And the best-case scenario that the present is a surprise intends to show: I've put a lot of thought into this. – That's one side of the matter. The other side is "reciprocity" – that each person gives something. Boris Holzer, a professor of general sociology at the University of Konstanz who studies social networks, explains it this way:

"I give you something because I expect a gift in return. While giving and receiving a favour are separated by a certain period of time in other forms of social exchange – and ultimately, you cannot be sure whether your favour will be reciprocated – the reciprocity of Christmas gifts takes place at a fixed time and place".

Boris Holzer

Officially it is about confirming a relationship between two people, but unofficially the aspect of reciprocity is hard to deny. "However, it would be a big mistake to say that out loud", adds Holzer. This means there is a discrepancy between what people think and what they can say openly.

Common practice
The practice of giving gifts at Christmas is part of a much more comprehensive common practice defined by the reciprocal nature of exchange. For example, we greet others politely, expecting that they will respond in kind. However, Christmas reciprocity is particularly symbolic in nature. One expression of this characteristic is the wrapping of gifts, which lends a festive aura to even the most ordinary objects.

Gifts that are hard to wrap, like a piano, are at least decorated with a bow. Boris Holzer also points out that people more often take pictures of the wrapped packages under the Christmas tree than the unwrapped gifts. He sees this as a sign that, despite everything, the symbolic nature of the gift continues to play a major role.

© Image by Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

People more often take pictures of the wrapped packages under the Christmas tree than the unwrapped gifts. Boris Holzer sees this as a sign that, despite everything, the symbolic nature of the gift continues to play a major role.

Spouses come first
There are, however, additional aspects of the implicit rules for gift-giving. For example, regardless of how much Anne likes her father-in-law, the unwritten rule is: Spouses come first. Her husband would be rightly offended if Anne didn't put his gift first. Children are largely excluded from the reciprocity requirement because they have not yet mastered the intricacies of giving gifts – as in Leo's case.

As long as, in the words of sociologist Boris Holzer, gift-giving is a "symbolic act of expression", it would seem to be out of the question to give a gift of money. Holzer takes a pragmatic view of the gift certificates now commonly available: "As long as you can avoid placing the focus on consumption alone and save some of the symbolic value of the act, such gifts are more acceptable today than they were in the past". At least you can package a gift certificate and wrap it in ribbon.
Exchanging ten euro notes, however, goes against age-old rules:

"In archaic societies, gifts and mutual assistance played a critical role in the social context, precisely because one's 'accounts' were never evened out, thus guaranteeing the continued existence of the corresponding social relationships. Even when a gift is given in return, a small 'debt' of gratitude remains that keeps the social relationship and the exchange of favours going."

Boris Holzer

Consuming wealth at Christmas
In the Christmas context, Boris Holzer explains old customs that still play a role today. Families stack their presents – or "valuables" – under the Christmas tree, much like some societies that collectively and ceremonially liquidated excess wealth. "Christmas is also a kind of system for consuming and liquidating wealth", the sociologist says.

"To be precise: In this case, the money is not actually destroyed but transferred to someone else. This is why the sociologist Niklas Luhmann aptly described Christmas as a 'private system of reciprocal taxation benefiting retail'". It is not really a redistribution of wealth but rather common practice for those who have more to also give more. Here, too, at least to some extent, differences in wealth are evened out.
Boris Holzer concludes: 

"The rules of Christmas do not serve to depict personal relationships as realistically as possible but to express them in the best possible light."

Boris Holzer

Maria Schorpp

By Maria Schorpp - 15.12.2023