The Perfect Gift: Do these gift rules still apply?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series The Perfect Gift
Hands giving a wrapped gift

Photo by Asenat29, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Decades ago, a team of sociologists studied Christmas gift-giving rules in a Midwestern city. These rules were informal, unwritten, and tacit. No one talked about them, but they were uniformly followed. Do these rules still apply today?

This week we’ve talked about the annual elusive hunt for the perfect gift. We considered money as the perfect gift, mindfulness and gift giving, the controversial practice of regifting, and giving to charity as an alternative. Today, we consider the informal rules of gift giving.

A team of sociologists led by Theodore Caplow observed gift-giving rituals in “Middletown,” a pseudonym for a real Midwestern city. They reported their findings in the American Journal of Sociology. Here are some of the informal rules they observed:

  • The wrapping rule—all Christmas gifts should be wrapped. Further, the wrapping should be appropriate for the holiday. Large gifts (like a piano or car) are wrapped symbolically in a bow and ribbon. Is this rule still important today? Is it acceptable to give an unwrapped gift?
  • The familiarity rule—the gift should demonstrate the degree of familiarity the giver has with the receiver, such as an understanding of the receiver’s preferences. But the gift should also surprise the recipient by the economic value or aesthetic value of the gift. Is this still true today?
  • The scaling rule—this is a set of rules about the appropriate value of a gift. At the top are gifts between spouses; these are the most valuable, economically or aesthetically. Next are gifts from parents to children. If there are multiple children, they should be given gifts of equal value. Are these rules still applicable today?

Are these rules still applicable today?

Are there new rules?

Share this series with friends

You can reach friends by using the blue-“f” Facebook or envelope-shaped email icons. You’re also free to print out these columns and use them to spark discussion in your class or small group.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Series Navigation<< The Perfect Gift: Giving to charity?