WWhy are Christmas presents packed in such a cumbersome way when they first have to be removed from the packages in which they were delivered anyway? Why is the exchange of gifts so symmetrical, but mostly one-sided in children? Many rituals of the Christmas festival can hardly be justified rationally. The answer to such questions is often: “We’ve always done it this way.”
But this information is as accurate as it is inadequate: in order for a tradition to be reproduced, it must be socially supported not only in the past but also in the present. Despite some signs of fading, this seems to still be the case at Christmas: there are few occasions when so many people – at least in the western and formerly Christian part of the world – act at the same time and in such a homogenous way. And yet there seems to be no detailed justification or external specifications for the Christmas celebrations where they are cultivated. Apart from the statutory public holidays, there are no official regulations that can be referred to – and yet the result looks quite similar in many households.
The extent of uniform action becomes clear when one examines the hustle and bustle in the living rooms more closely. As early as the 1970s, a group of American sociologists led by Theodore Caplow conducted a survey on holiday activities in a medium-sized city. In “Middletown,” they found, the residents overwhelmingly adhered to a manageable number of rules – mostly without being able to name them themselves.
The vast majority put up a Christmas tree, especially married couples with minor children. Rooms where gifts were exchanged were always decorated for Christmas, regardless of whether it was a private home or an office; in particular, the room with the Christmas tree was not allowed to remain undecorated. Presents were handed out in front of a assembled group, who then enjoyed a traditional Christmas dinner. This may not look the same everywhere in Middletown (turkey or ham, preferably both). And in other respects, too, there are regional variations and changes. But there is little to suggest that the parameters of Christmas have fundamentally changed.
The meaning of gifts
This also includes the unwritten rules of giving, which on the one hand provide for a high degree of reciprocity, but on the other hand fine gradations. Anyone who gives something expects to receive a gift. However, it would not be appropriate to expect a gift in return, the value of which would correspond exactly to that of your own gift. For this reason too, gifts of money are regarded as stopgap solutions, which lead to such a calculation and also lack the personal touch.
Because gifts should reflect knowledge of the preferences of the recipient as well as the quality of the personal relationship – and also be surprising. This symbolic meaning of the gifts is also expressed in the fact that they have to be wrapped. A stack of wrapped presents under the Christmas tree is a popular photograph, while the unwrapped presents are used immediately or put away inconspicuously. In Middletown, it became apparent that the value of the gifts, which circulated primarily within the family, was based on “scaling rules” for which the family relationship was decisive: the spouses were given the most generous gifts, followed by the children; then came the siblings, to whom the in-law family members were put on an equal footing.
Even if those involved are not able to formulate this set of rules in detail, they mostly adhere to it, although serious sanctions are not to be expected in the event of violations. Mistakes, for example when choosing gifts, are treated more like slips of the tongue: no malicious intent is assumed and you trust that the rule will apply again next time.
The similarity to language is not accidental: the Christmas gift exchange is a kind of language or code to express the meaning of personal relationships through appropriate objects. Not surprisingly, children’s participation is limited: on the one hand, they have to learn the language of gifts, on the other hand, they are notorious for occasionally being too direct and open in their communication. However, the purpose of the Christmas code is not to depict personal relationships realistically, but to present them in the best possible light.