Christmas gifts are a key to relationship building, but beware of the pitfalls

MAARTEN HOLLStuff talks to Wellington Christmas shoppers about their festive shopping preferences.

Christmas comes but once a year and for many Kiwis it’s a struggle to find the perfect gift for their loved ones.

Trade Me can attest to that as hundreds of unwanted Christmas gifts get listed on its website every year “before Christmas dinner is even fully digested”.

But Santa might not be to blame for misconstrued presents seeing as misjudged lingerie from hapless partners were one of the most common post-Christmas listings on the site.

Massey University social psychology professor James Liu says gifts are a key to building relationships – either by giving an expressive gift that shows how well you know them and what you feel about them, or an expensive gift, as a token of how much you’re willing to sacrifice to help them.

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“Either approach has its risks. If you misjudge it, both sides feel embarrassed … which can create tension and damage the relationship you’re trying to strengthen,” Liu said.

He said people worried about getting the right gift for family, partners and close friends because they’re the most meaningful bonds – nobody wants to accidentally reveal they don’t know their loved ones as well as they should by getting them the wrong gift.

Bex Chadfield-James,left, and her daughter Kayla Chadfield know from experience picking thoughtful Christmas gifts for everyone in a big family can be a minefield.
WARWICK SMITH/STUFFBex Chadfield-James,left, and her daughter Kayla Chadfield know from experience picking thoughtful Christmas gifts for everyone in a big family can be a minefield.

Unlike some cultures, Kiwis don’t have formal practices on what is an appropriate gift; the rules are unspoken and picked up by example as we grow up.

And there’s such a variety of upbringings and cultures in New Zealand that there’s no one set of guidelines – which can cause differences in gift expectations between newer partners or friends, Liu said.

Meanwhile, Trade Me spokeswoman Millie Silvester said the auction website asked 1000 Kiwis about Christmas shopping this week, and 36 per cent found parents or partners were the hardest to buy gifts for.

“Many of us stress about getting it right [for those closest to us]. Perhaps we know too much about these people, and get ourselves into an emotional tangle.”

It’s also partially a fear of giving a bad gift without realising it because 85 per cent of Kiwis admitted they’d pretend to like even the worst Christmas clangers to spare a loved one’s feelings, she said.

To Kayla Chadfield, 17, gifts should be meaningful – a way to show you care, and you paid attention to a loved one’s life.

Her mum Bex Chadfield-James just ticked off the last of her Christmas list on a trip the pair took to The Plaza Shopping Centre in Palmerston North, but Kayla was struggling to finish her gift shopping.

“We’re a big family. It takes a lot of time and effort to come up with a thoughtful gift for all of them.”

Liu said Kayla’s was a common Kiwi Christmas struggle. We are uncomfortable with unequal exchanges of gifts – so we’re all aiming to put in the same amount of thought and money into our presents.  

Kayla said it gets harder when you remember embarrassing gift mistakes, like the time she picked a perfect cardigan for her mum – but guessed her mum’s dress size was at least three sizes bigger.

Chadfield-James said it was nice, but lifting it from the wrapping was an awkward moment because she never was going to wear it.

“It would have been flapping around all over the place.” 

Liu said, in the end, the secret was to not put too much pressure on yourself. 

“They know you love them. The gift is just a token of that. If you get it slightly wrong on Christmas, there are 364 other days that year to make it up to them.”

Sunday Star Times