the gift that gives you away

Your Christmas stocking brings you a Wonderbra and a calorie counter. Is someone trying to tell you something? Anna Blundy explains. And, on this page, Rosanna Greenstreet asked some movers and shakers to choose gifts with a message for those they love to hate
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a pair of diamond earrings in a flamboyantly wrapped red velvet box. Is he telling you something about you or about him? Is he unsatisfied with who you really are and dying to transform you into a glittering glamour- puss, or does his extravagance belie his own fear of being mean and drab? Does the wrapping reveal his superficiality and ostentation? Who cares - gimme the earrings, you might say.

But the psychology of present-giving is not a matter to be taken lightly, according to Carole Burgoyne, lecturer in psychology at Exeter University and present-giving guru. Experts can tell what's wrong with you by poking the soles of your feet, noting down the notches in your iris or scrutinising your handwriting and now, it seems, even the gifts you innocently bestow upon your nearest and dearest during the festive season can betray you as well.

It is a well known fact that people always buy presents for the person they wish you were rather than the person you are - sexy underwear to transform dowdy girlfriends, mind-expanding books for the semi-literate, frilly dolls for the tomboy niece and a nice manly machine-gun for the camp nephew. Fathers will often buy their adolescent daughters presents that are too young for them, like dolls or felt-tips, because they can't quite face the fact that their baby would rather have a Blur poster and some make-up.

The esteem in which you hold someone, your relationship with them and exactly what you think of them is apparently revealed in your gift. A friend of mine claimed she was thinking of buying her mother a subscription to Time magazine. "She needs to widen her horizons a bit," she said. She is willing to spend a lot of money on the present, she is even putting some thought into it, but she is subconsciously trying to change the recipient into someone else. "A gift is never merely a gift," says Burgoyne. "It is a symbol of a relationship."

In fact, so fixed is one's underlying attitude to another person that we often buy the same or an extremely similar gift for them year after year. I thought buying my shabby, hippie boyfriend a Filofax and a tie might turn him into a slick and presentable human being, but I didn't realise I was displaying my mania for control and my acute anal-retentiveness all at once. Nor was I aware that I was silently putting in a request for an expensive grown-up present for myself.

"Reciprocity" is, insists Burgoyne, key in present-giving. "So much of Christmas giving actually shows a more calculated character than is generally acknowledged." For, despite all our cries of "You shouldn't have!" present- giving is in fact absolutely compulsory and comes with a strict set of rules that we take in throughout our lives, according to the psychologist, "with our cornflakes and tea".

For example, you can't give money to elders or those of higher status because it would, in a sense, be returning to them a gift they once gave to you, since they have supported you all your life. Also, it shows a lack of effort and, says Burgoyne, "the onerous nature of the task of shopping needs to be emphasised in order to turn an everyday object into a present." Nor are you allowed to buy a gift too cheap (you don't care enough) or too expensive (you are initiating a debt of obligation).

The risk of failure here is great and grave, because rejected presents are never forgotten. Fifteen years ago I bought my stepfather an Arab headress, and I am still needling him on a regular basis for never wearing it. Sometimes the fear of failure is so great that a pre-Christmas deal is done and lists are drawn up. Many people, in terror of defeat, choose to dispense with the recipient's personality altogether and just buy a present for themselves. One year my mother bought my stepfather a lace tablecloth and he bought her a drill. Simple. My father, on the other hand, used to give me little computer games he wanted to play - the kind that would have Snoopy running around catching eggs - and he would snatch them back immediately if anyone beat his highest score.

The more off-beat the gift, the more it seems to say about the giver. December's Cosmopolitan magazine suggests buying the illustrated Karma Sutra or a photograph of yourself in the nude for your lover, both of which show far more consideration for the buyer's self-image than for the requirements of the lover. Quite what the ghastly Ann Summers penis- shaped ice-cube trays reveal about a person is best left undiscovered. Luckily, especially in this case, the wrapping and presentation, says our psychological expert, give the act of giving precedence over the object, whatever the present, and transform it into an emotionally charged symbol for those few seconds before the ice-cube tray itself is actually revealed.

The symbolism doesn't, of course, end there. Pious presents from charity catalogues can be as agonistic as a hand-held vacuum- action pore cleaner (pounds 5.99). "You cannot be seen to be saving money, and a present ought really to be something extravagant that you wouldn't buy yourself - something fun," explains Carole Burgoyne. The National Trust catalogue, for example, is particularly lacking in hedonism - try a rectangular trinket tray for pounds 37.95 or a shell gift box with bath salts, flannel and shell-shaped soap pounds 9.95. These gifts are for the do-gooder who wants to prove charitable deeds are never off his or her agenda, even when shopping.

The other notoriously loaded Christmas present is a duty-free bottle of spirits, cuddly plane or tax- free perfume, snatched in the rush at Heathrow. "Sorry it's not wrapped - I was in such a state after the delays in Antigua." Not only is the giver shamelessly showing off about a glamorous lifestyle, but exposing stinginess into the bargain. So, I wasn't worth the tax, eh? "Self-indulgence definitely crosses the line in the delicate balancing act of present-giving," sighs Burgoyne witheringly.

So that pretty much leaves the Home Dome Ocean Park with sand, wave machine and retractable roof at pounds 130m from The 13th Annual Ultimate Gift Guide as the only viable option this year. It would be churlish to over-analyse the motives of the donor in this case - if someone has that kind of money to spend, who cares why they want to spend it on you?

"Only giving blood," concludes Carole Burgoyne, "is purely altruistic." So, having stripped the romance from present-giving forever, what is Carole Burgoyne buying her partner for Christmas - a pint of blood perhaps? "We need a computer, so we're buying half each," she says, abashed. Well, they don't come blander than that.

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