Great! Another pair of socks...

Giving Christmas presents can be stressful. But receiving them is even worse.

DON'T CHRISTMAS presents look beautiful as they glitter under the tree, all wrapped in shining paper and decorated with ribbons and tinsel? And sadly, that elegant packaging may be the most alluring thing about the gift itself. How often those enticing boxes turn out to contain a piece of useless and completely inappropriate old rubbish: for this is the season when novelty kitchen accoutrements, embossed-leather manicure sets, fluffy-animal slippers and boxes of sculpted nuggets of marzipan start to suddenly appear, cunningly disguised in smart wrappings and seasonal bows.

Last week, we heard how Dr David Lewis, a psychologist, had surveyed Brent Cross Shopping Centre and found that trudging round the shops can raise stress levels equal to those experienced by fighter pilots. Now William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, is going as far as to say that it's the actual giving of gifts which is the most nerve-wracking part of the entire season. The British spend an average of pounds 42 per gift, more than the French or the Americans. And yet despite all the effort, agonising and spending, it's still so easy to get it wrong.

Take, for example, Maria, who hinted for weeks about a beautiful, soft, grey cashmere sweater that she had fallen in love with. Under the tree, a package duly appeared of the right size, shape and squashiness. On Christmas morning, as she tore away the paper, she could barely keep her countenance: inside were a dozen tea towels. This story gets worse. The giver was her husband.

Or Sara, who has amassed a near-professional collection of cake tins, pie dishes, pizza cutters and expensive Le Creuset enamelware of all shapes and sizes from her parents-in-law. This year, she says grimly, she is expecting the famous Delia-endorsed omelette pan. "But it's no good. All the kitchen stuff in the world isn't going to turn me into her. It's simply a case of can't cook, won't cook. There's no malice involved on their part, but they just can't imagine a young woman who isn't a whizz in the kitchen and the more they pile me up with non-stick bakeware, the less I feel like cooking anything at all."

Esther still remembers her disappointment when, aged about 10, she asked her grandmother for a copy of The Hobbit. "My grandma was in one of those book clubs that produces identically-bound copies of various classics. She mistook which book I was pointing to and I unwrapped a copy of The Complete Poems of Byron, Shelley and Keats, lovingly inscribed with my name and a message so it couldn't go back. No dragons, no dwarves, no hobbits. I still have the damn book on my shelf, and I've never read it."

Being landed with unwanted tea towels, omelette pans and books of classical poetry doesn't simply mean the aggravation of having to take them back (or having to dump them on the doorstep of the local charity shop). Research into the psychology of giving suggests that inappropriate gifts can sometimes betray what is a hopelessly dysfunctional relationship.

"It's awful when you get a present you don't like," says Dr Carol Burgoyne, a lecturer in psychology at Exeter University. "This isn't just a response to a commodity you don't like, because a gift is more than that - you are giving a part of yourself to the other person."

It is worse, she says, if the person handing out the festive tat is close to you. "If it is someone who should know you and your tastes quite intimately, that can leave a very negative feeling. It suggests that they haven't taken care over their choice, or that they are misguided about what kind of person you are."

And, she further warns, there is a complex gift-ranking system to complicate matters further. Partners or parents and children expect, not to put too fine a point on it, a better present than those given to more distant recipients, which probably means one that cost more. "To some, the cost of the gift can be a signal of how much the giver cares," warns Dr Burgoyne.

Sadly, most people will be receiving a few duds this year (and, indeed, giving them). For those who can't face the returns queue, a recent American Express survey found that 28 per cent of cardholders had found a practical and thrifty way of resolving the problem: simply rewrapping the white elephant and giving it away to someone else.

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