How to give the perfect Christmas present

Christmas is coming”, laments Ellen Stuart, “and I have got to think up presents for everybody . . . Dear me, it’s so tedious!”

Her aunt sympathises and remembers her youth, a time earlier than gift-giving grew to become extreme. “Presents did not fly about in those days as they do now.”

These acquainted sentiments are older than we would guess. Ellen is a personality in Christmas; or, The Good Fairy, a brief story written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1850.

In The Battle for Christmas (1988), historian Stephen Nissenbaum argues that Beecher Stowe, born in 1811, was appropriate in her childhood recollections. The customized of giving items at Christmas took off in the US in the 1820s. By the 1830s, newspaper letters pages contained complaints about commercialisation, and Macy’s in New York was open till midnight on Christmas Eve as early as 1867.


Gift-giving grew to become standard when Christmas advanced right into a primarily home vacation. Before then, it was a riotous public bacchanal, extra like Halloween. Of course, at Christmas the trick-or-treaters weren’t kids in fancy gown however gangs of inebriated younger males demanding beer, mouldy cheese and cash. No marvel Clement Clarke Moore, writing in the early 1820s, was eager to rebrand Christmas Eve as a time for hushed domesticity when “all through the house, not a creature was stirring”.

After two centuries of Christmas commercialisation it appears pointless to resist. But we might at the least aspire to change into higher gift-givers. Social psychologists have been investigating this problem in recent times.

Francis Flynn and Francesca Gino discovered that choosing a present from a wishlist could appear joyless and unimaginative from the perspective of the giver, however recipients see such items as considerate. A giver who consults the wishlist is a giver who takes the bother to choose one thing you truly wished in spite of everything.


Jessica Rixom, Erick Mas and Brett Rixom discovered, surprisingly, {that a} sloppily wrapped present from a pal could also be extra appreciated than one thing extra Instagrammable. The purpose appears to be that scruffiness lowers expectations. If the present seems to have put up a battle whereas being wrapped, the contents are extra doubtless to be a pleasing shock.

And in a examine that can shock no one, 4 (male) researchers advise males not to give conspicuously luxurious items to ladies too early in a relationship; it appears that evidently ladies don’t at all times recognize males’s efforts to make them really feel a way of obligation.

But the study that the majority caught my eye this 12 months comes courtesy of Jeff Galak, Elanor Williams and the aptly named Julian Givi. Givi and colleagues argue that there’s a single, easy mismatch underlying lots of our errors. Gift-givers have a tendency to focus an excessive amount of on the second that the present is unwrapped, whereas for recipients that second is merely the begin of the present’s story.

This mismatch does clarify lots of the issues that go improper when presents are opened. The most evident sort of unhealthy present is the “novelty” — a {golfing} tchotchke for somebody recognized to like golf, maybe, or a T-shirt with a emblem too bawdy to put on in public. These items are all sizzle and no steak. They elicit an instantaneous snort or howl of recognition, however thereafter merely elevate the query of whether or not the native garbage tip opens earlier than New Year.


But there are extra refined errors too. For instance, many individuals get pleasure from experiences reminiscent of an evening out at a live performance, however a live performance ticket might be only a piece of paper with a QR code on it, and there’s nothing enjoyable about unwrapping that. So gift-givers have a tendency to lean in the direction of one thing bodily as an alternative.

Another bias is to favour an entire present over one thing partial. Let’s say the recipient needs a meals processor and the gift-giver can’t afford an excellent one. Most gift-givers choose to give an affordable mannequin that matches the finances, whereas many recipients would somewhat have a contribution in the direction of the value of upper high quality gear.

Gift-givers hardly ever take into consideration practicality — for instance, when will the recipient truly get an opportunity to use this? Even a present card could be sensible or impractical, relying on circumstances. (I do know individuals who’ve obtained present playing cards which are legitimate solely in shops a couple of hours away.)

In 2007 the economist Jennifer Pate Offenburg studied the resale worth of present playing cards on eBay. Cards from Home Depot, OfficeMax and Starbucks did nicely. Those from Tiffany & Co and Victoria’s Secret offered at a considerable low cost. Tiffany’s might sound extra particular, however the Starbucks card is the one that folks will discover simple to use.

Above all, shock is overrated. In the uncommon cases the place a shocking present is well-chosen, the shock is a fleeting delight that advantages the giver as a lot as the recipient. When the shocking present is a flop, the recipient is then caught with it. Beecher Stowe’s Christmas story concludes with one character noting, “There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of the year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got.”

It’s been that manner for 200 years. But thanks to social science, we will do higher. Focus on what the recipient will truly do with the present, somewhat than aiming for impact at the second of unwrapping. Romance, shock and delight are good, however don’t be ashamed to be sensible. And in the event you’re unsure what present is likely to be appreciated, ask.

Tim Harford’s new guide is “How to Make the World Add Up

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