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A Sociologist Studied Christmas Gifts, and Here's What He Learned

George Marks/Hulton Archive/Getty

Christmas shopping is worth stressing over: Anthropologists and sociologists have long believed that ritualized gift exchange is one of the most important mechanisms keeping our fragile social networks intact. The French anthropologist Marcel Mauss hypothesized in his seminal 1925 essay, “The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies," that when an object is given as a gift, it becomes inextricably tied to the giver. “To make a gift of something,” he wrote, “is to make a present of some part of oneself." Mauss identified three obligations associated with gift exchange: giving, which he equates with the first step in building a social relationship; receiving, which signifies acceptance of the social relationship; and reciprocating, which demonstrates the recipient’s integrity. If gifts are refused or unreciprocated, relationships can be threatened.

In 1979, University of Virginia sociologist Theodore Caplow, in keeping with the tradition of a generation of sociologists led by Robert and Helen Lynd, travelled to the small town of Muncie, Indiana—a stand-in for “Middletown, USA”—to study something the Lynds had neglected: the annual exchange of gifts on Christmas, a ritual in which even the most socially isolated residents participate. Caplow interviewed 110 adults on their experience of Christmas the previous year, and from their responses was able to collect data on 366 Christmas gatherings and 4,347 individual gifts. Though he discovered strict rules underlying nearly every aspect of holiday gift-giving—from who gives what to how presents are wrapped—Middletown residents denied the existence of such rules, preferring to envision Christmas gifting as a voluntary, spontaneous demonstration of love and friendship. “Gift exchange,” Caplow concluded, “is a language that employs objects instead of words as its lexical elements…. The language of prestation, like the verbal language, begins to be learned in early childhood and is used with increasing assurance as the individual matures and acquires social understanding.”

He presented his findings in two essays, “Christmas Gifts and Kin Networks," which appeared in American Sociological Review in 1982, and “Rule Enforcement Without Visible Means: Christmas Gift Giving in Middletown,” published in American Journal of Sociology in 1984.

Gifts must be given to the right people

"The 110 respondents in the sample gave 2,969 gifts and received 1,378 gifts, a mean of 27 given and 13 received. Participants in this gift system should give (individually or jointly) at least one Christmas gift every year to their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters; to the current spouses of these persons; and to their own spouses. By the operation of this rule, participants expect to receive at least one gift in return from each of these persons excepting infants…Gifts to grandparents and grandchildren seem to be equally obligatory if these live in the same community or nearby, but not at greater distances. Christmas gifts to siblings are not required.

Parents expect to give more valuable and more numerous gifts to their minor children and to their adult children living at home than they receive in return. This imbalance is central to the entire ritual. The iconography of Middletown's secular Christmas emphasizes unreciprocated giving to children by the emblematic figure of Santa Claus, and the theme of unreciprocated giving provides one of the few connections between the secular and religious iconography of the festival-the Three Wise Men coming from a distant land to bring unreciprocated gifts to a child.

There is little reciprocity in the gift giving between non-kin. A large number of the gifts in this category are addressed to persons who provide minor services; reciprocation in those cases would be bizarre. Gifts from employers to employees, from grateful patients to physicians, and from pupils to teachers do not call for reciprocation."

Gifts must be given in the right way

"Christmas gifts should be distributed at gatherings where every person gives and receives gifts. More than nine-tenths of the 1,378 gifts our respondents received, and of the 2,969 they gave, were distributed in gatherings, more than three-quarters of which were family gatherings. Most gifts mailed or shipped by friends and relatives living at a distance were double wrapped, so that the outer unceremonious wrappings could be removed and the inner packages could be placed with other gifts to be opened at a gathering.

Christmas gifts must be wrapped before they are presented…. Difficult-to-wrap Christmas gifts, like a pony or a piano, are wrapped symbolically by adding a ribbon or bow or card and are hidden until presentation."

Gifts must be the right type

"Clothing was by far the most common type of gift (35 percent of all gifts); followed by toys (10 percent); money and food/beverages (9 percent each); decorations/ornaments (7 percent); cosmetics/toiletries, household equipment, and jewelry (6 percent each); appliances and sports/hobby equipment (3 percent each); and plants/flowers (2 percent). The preference for clothing over all other categories is probably accounted for by the automatic individualization of items of clothing. In effect, they describe the receiver by age, sex, appearance, and style.

Money is an appropriate gift from senior to junior kin, but an inappropriate gift from junior to senior kin, regardless of the relative affluence of the parties."

Giving the right way can strengthen a relationship

"Most of Middletown's gift giving occurs between close kin…the pattern it displays shows up the two principal points of stress in the contemporary American family. The first point of stress is the insecurity of the spousal relationship. Viewed cross-culturally, the contemporary American family is unusual in exhibiting a very high level of interaction between spouses while permitting easy, almost penalty-free divorce at the initiative of either spouse at any point in the life cycle. Since divorce is always more than a remote possibility in a Middletown marriage, the relationship with affinal relatives [in-laws] is always a little uneasy.

The individual message [of a gift] says, “I value you according to the degree of our relationship” and anticipates the response, “I value you in the same way.” But the compound message that emerges from the unwrapping of gifts in the presence of the whole gathering allows more subtle meanings to be conveyed. It permits the husband to say to the wife, “I value you more than my parents” or the mother to say to the daughter-in-law, “I value you as much as my son so long as you are married to him” or the brother to say to the brother, “I value you more than our absent brothers, but less than our parents and much less than my children.” These statements, taken together, would define and sustain a social structure, if only because, by their gift messages, both parties to each dyadic relationship confirm that they have the same understanding of the relationship and the bystanders, who are interested parties, endorse that understanding by tacit approval."

Giving the wrong way can be the end of a relationship

"In the dialect of Christmas gift giving, the absence of a gift is also a lexical sign, signifying either the absence of a close relationship, as in the Christmas contact of cousins, or the desire to terminate a close relationship, as when a husband gives no gift to his wife.

The spouse’s or lover's gift that is disliked by the receiver is a sign of alienation. Two of the five couples in our sample for whom such gifts were reported at Christmas 1978 had separated by the time of the interview several weeks later."

George Marks/Hulton Archive/Getty