May the Lord make us truly grateful, even if it's perfectly horrible and insultingly inappropriate. Hester Lacey decodes the grisly subtext of giving
What more alluring sight could there be than a Christmas tree surrounded by beautifully wrapped gifts? It's certainly a more enticing vision than the contents of those very packages, once stripped of their gold paper, ribbons, tinsel and bows. For so often they turn out to contain a load of completely useless old tat, however loving the intentions of the giver may have been. And this may mean more than the simple aggravation of trying to return the hideous embossed leather Radio Times cover, revolting novelty tea-towels-of-Wales set and hopelessly optimistic PVC mini-skirt whence they came. Research into the psychology of giving suggests that inappropriate gifts can indicate a hopelessly dysfunctional relationship.

What, for example, are we to make of the "virtual gift"? You call, for example, your sister-in-law to extract some discreet suggestions for the rest of the family, and find that she and her husband want, perhaps, some fruit trees for their garden. "Why don't we say that the pear-tree we've already ordered is your gift, and you can send us the money for it?" she says. In return, you confide that you are buying your partner sky-diving lessons, and if they'd like to buy him an extra one, she need only send the dosh and you'll do the rest. You then exchange a festive cheque for pounds 30.

A ghastly scenario, according to Dr Paul Webley, economic psychologist at Exeter University. "Gift giving is a form of communication," he says. "Money doesn't send the message 'I understand you' or 'I know what kind of person you are'. It represents no thought or effort whatsoever, and most people tend to think that money is a very inadequate gift."

Even giving the money to a deserving cause does not make you a good present buyer. "One year there had been a whole spate of tragedies and natural disasters leading up to Christmas and I told my family that instead of buying presents we should all make a donation to charity," says one rebuffed giver. "They were all furious and it went down like a lead balloon." And rightly so, says Dr Webley. "The ideal charity donation is anonymous. It's not for display, it's not there to say 'Look how generous and concerned I am!' It's terrible as a gift."

And what about the unaccountable lapses of taste shown by those who offer the expensive, carefully-chosen, beautifully presented white elephant of a present? This one, says Dr Webley, is particularly worrying, for presents symbolise the relationship between giver and givee. "When you receive a gift, the other person is conveying their sense of your identity. And when the gift is completely wrong, it suggests the person doesn't understand you. You worry they may be misunderstanding the whole relationship - that's why it's so disturbing."

Equally alarming are those dogged givers who won't give up. "When I was little, our aunts and uncles would send me presents, but most of them gave up when I was 18," says a reluctant beneficiary. "One couple, though, have kept on going, and I'm pushing 30 now. Every year I get some ghastly Capodimonte-type figure or a box of horrible toffees, and I can't think how to say 'Stop!' Even resolutely sending them no more than a card doesn't work. It's embarrassing." Dr Webley diagnoses another relationship issue. "Again, it's an understanding failure. It's like having a persistent suitor who won't go away. You want to redefine the relationship, and they won't accept your re-categorisation."

Another horror occurs when friends start producing children. It's quite possible to find that suddenly an extra dozen gifts have been added to the list. "This can get out of hand," warns Dr Webley. "Take a long cool look at the situation, estimate who's likely to have children, and if it's only one best friend that's fine. If there are potentially five or six, don't even start. Children get far too many presents anyway," he adds robustly. "Concentrate on the adults!"

Easier said than done, evidently. With all this grisly subtext to decode, perhaps the best thing is to decamp somewhere hot and forget the whole gift-giving minefield. A Gallup poll has shown that nearly 80 per cent of people think Christmas has been spoiled by over-commercialisation, so theoretically, four out of five people shouldn't mind backing up their bold words by forfeiting their materialistic haul of booty. But Dr Webley also has advice to offer on the perfect gift; though it may not be easy to find and a degree in psychology may be needed to pin it down. "It has to be a welcome surprise - something you really needed, but didn't realise that you did," he says. "A present like this shows that the giver knows you even better than you know yourself."