The wrong Christmas present can put a relationship on ice. But the art of giving needn't be a social minefield, experts tell Tara Jenkins and Karen Pittar
HAIRSTYLIST BEVERLEY Cappleman will never forget the Christmas of 1989. 'I was dating this really cool guy, and he wasn't going to be around, so he made a big deal about the present he'd bought me,' she says. 'He arrived at the salon, box in arms; it was a huge parcel, beautifully wrapped. Although the anticipation was killing me, and the rest of the staff tried to get me to open it then and there, my instincts said no. Instead, I took it home and put it under the tree.
'Christmas morning arrived and because I was nervous, I left it until the very last to open, with all my family eagerly watching on. To my horror, inside the box was a Pink Panther lamp; the panther was leaning against a lamppost, his tail curled around it. You had to pull the tail to turn the lamp on and off.
'I felt I had to end the relationship, I couldn't go forward after that. When he asked if I liked it, I said it was fabulous, but I ended it soon after. Every Christmas, I laugh about that Pink Panther lamp.'
If Cappleman's story is anything to go by, gift giving is fraught with pitfalls and hidden dangers. It's all about messages, and how much the recipient reads into that gift,' says St John's relationship counsellor, Sharon Glick. 'It's not the present, but rather what the present implies. People often feel that presents are a reflection of how much thought has been put into the relationship. So, if a man gives a woman a frying pan, it's depressing, because it shows he values her less as a goddess and more as a domestic drudge!'
But Glick says that there are valid reasons behind gifts that appear to be thoughtless or insulting.
Simone Chua laughingly recounts the first Christmas she spent with her husband's parents. 'As we sat to open our presents, I felt a flush of dismay when I realised my mother-in-law had bought me a flowered ironing board and pack of three dusters,' the nurse says. 'My first thought was that she was telling me I needed to become a better housekeeper, a better wife.
'But I've realised over the years that she is just a very practical person, and to her the present made sense. She buys my husband sports socks, handkerchiefs and boxer shorts every year, and gifts for other members of the family have included umbrellas, DIY tools and kitchen utensils.'
According to Glick, successful gift giving is all about establishing lines of communication. 'If each person carries an image of themselves and the gift is in conflict with it, then it's insulting,' she says. 'But was it planned to be insulting, or was it just practical?
'Issues in gift giving are often connected with how families traditionally give and receive gifts. If gifts were significant in your family when you were growing up, then they're more likely to be important now. With some families, they're not as significant.
'If two people come from very different backgrounds, then it can be hard. You need to talk things through. With Cappleman's story, we have to ask what was going on that would make him buy the Pink Panther lamp? It probably wasn't that he didn't cherish and love her the way she cherished him, it's just a different form of expression,' Glick says.
'You have to realise there is a fantasy of how relationships should be, and then there is the reality of how relationships are.'
Many people are flummoxed by the idea of presents, so how do you negotiate the minefield of gift-giving etiquette? Start with a list, says Glick.
'I had a client whose successful businessman husband bought her the most wretched gift every year,' she says. 'We came up with an amazing plan where she wrote a list of 10 items she desperately wanted, and he would surprise her. It was brilliant for him and she didn't get a gift she hated, and then felt resentful about for the next two months.'
Most experts agree there are several things you shouldn't touch when it comes to gift giving. For women, steer clear of bathroom scales, kitchen appliances, weight-loss gift certificates or cellulite spa treatments.
'Unless it's your wife, don't give anything that's too personal, like a negligee ... and scents would be a real mistake - too personal,' says Jenna Milly, reporting for CNN.com. 'For men, avoid anything cutesy, like sexy underwear or an 'I Love You' balloon with candy.'
Becky Chang, a personal stylist at Lane Crawford, says Christmas is a time to get creative. 'Think of the lifestyle or hobbies of the friend you are shopping for, and don't choose gifts based on the dollar figure, it's the thought that counts,' she says.
Glick agrees that if you want to express yourself through gifts, then you should think about the recipient's personality.
'If you feel that the gift you give is a reflection on you, then it's important to choose an appropriate gift, one that shows you as a caring and considerate person,' she says.