Some of the world’s greatest monuments were gifts. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were reportedly built by 6th century BCE king Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife, Amytis, who missed the green hills of her home. The Statue of Liberty is perhaps the world’s most recognisable present, sent from France to America as a symbol of shared ideals and friendship. Japan’s cherry blossom trees and China’s pandas remain sprinkled around the world.
Whether between countries, peoples or individuals, presents are a way to say, I see you; I appreciate you; they are also a way to say, this is who I am.
We aren’t the only species that uses objects in this way. Bonobos share food as a way to expand their social network, and among male chimpanzees, a gift of food can be a token of trust. And gifts form an integral part of mating rituals across species.
What makes a good gift, and a good giver? Intention is key. When the Byzantine emperor Constantine V gave the Frankish king Pepin III a mechanical organ in the 8th century CE, he was just showing off. He wanted Pepin to know how far advanced Byzantine technology was. When France sent America the giant statue, it was a bit of a raised middle finger to England, their archrivals across the Channel and America’s former colonial masters, but it was a generous token of friendship nonetheless, and it celebrated a large victory won by the recipient.
It’s hard to say how long France was smiling about the statue (perhaps they still are), but in two studies published in 2018 in the journal Psychological Science, researchers from the Chicago Booth School of Business and the Kellogg School of Management found that the joy of giving lasts much longer than the joy of getting. Participants’ reported happiness levels declined much more slowly when they gave gifts than when they received them, the studies found, indicating that there could be scientific truth to the cliché about giving versus receiving (as anyone who has given a good gift can confirm).
The ideal present, studies have shown, is one that makes the recipient feel seen and valued; and one that is carefully wrapped. This is something humans have recognised for centuries. The earliest recorded use of wrapping paper dates to 2nd-century-BCE China, where the wrapping was made of bamboo fibre. In Japan, cloth is still used to wrap gifts in elaborate drapes, in a craft form known as furoshiki. In Korea, the ancient practice of bojagi, where patterned cloth is used in different drapes, is still popular.
What are you getting right and wrong as a gift-giver? Five tips for the season.
Don’t shop till you drop: “Festive gifting can feel overwhelming when one has a lot of people on one’s list. Start by decluttering the experience. Draw out a schedule that does not involve buying all the presents at one go or on the same day,” says life coach Chetna Chakravarthy. “Create the space to be more intuitive or thoughtful about individual items. Let this be more of a pleasure-deriving activity than a chore.”
Create deeper traditions: Make the exchange about more than buying an object, wrapping it and handing it over. One way to do this is to build an activity around gift-giving, says Chakravarthy. She organises an annual Secret Santa party with friends and, before they exchange presents each year, they decorate a tree together. “We take turns to choose an ornament we like and hang it up. This allows for conversation and draws us all into the celebration,” she says. A simple habit such as a handwritten note can also help preserve the moment, and articulate what prompted a gift, allowing the experience to take more concrete shape and last longer, or be revisited.
Don’t try to help: Self-help items, unless clearly indicated by the recipient, are not gifts at all. Don’t hand out books on how to live better; don’t try to put a bow on wrinkle cream, groomers or exercise gear. The same goes for pets or plants; a gift should not be a burden, should not overwhelm and should not have to be kept alive.
Don’t overdo it: This isn’t about you. The aim shouldn’t be to get a standing ovation from a crowd. The more flamboyant the present, the more it also risks outweighing the ones you are about to receive, and that’s poor form too. A good question to ask: Could my grand gesture potentially embarrass someone or make someone else feel small? “Being graceful is paramount. Every gift has a time and place. Be mindful of that,” says Chakravarthy.
Go undercover: Rather than trying to guess what the perfect present might be, ask someone. Or do a little sleuthing. Keep an eye out for things that reflect the recipient’s personality, ingredients they like in their food. If all else fails, offer the gift of your time. Even a shopping voucher can gain greater meaning if it comes with the promise of a day spent together.