Mental Health

Christmas Gift Giving Anxiety, is it all in your head ?

 In 2009 the money saving expert Martin Lewis proclaimed “It’s time to stop buying Christmas presents!”. In the thirty years between that brave proclamation and my first memories of childhood Christmases, seasonal consumerism had exploded. The noughties had bought a shower of mass-produced, cheap, disposable items, promoted with aggressive but successful advertising strategies such as “black Friday, grey Thursday and Cyber Monday”, three-for-two’s, and the result was long lines, crazy Christmas counters with long, chaotic lines, and rows over the last toy-of-the-minute on a scale that either we hadn’t previously seen, or I simply hadn’t spotted in the UK. It would appear that Amazon has a master plan to change the mix up again by bombarding us with an epic 10 day long ‘Black Friday’ event (wait, what?! Did the definition of Friday change?! And when did Sales become events?!). With a nation that appeared to be afflicted with festive fever for three months of every year, Martin Lewis had taken a gamble which could have seen the product of his disembowelment acting as festive tinsel and his crown jewels gifted to Mrs. Claus as lovely new earrings. As neither of these things happened it would appear that his gamble brought Mr. Lewis a little Christmas cheer of his own in the form of a surprising number of respondents agreeing with him.


Capitalising (and these sites really do capitalize on saving you money… clickthroughs, impressions, and ad revenues) on 2009’s success Martin ran a poll in 2010. In a poll of 10,000, the bah humbug brigade accounted for 700 responses (7%) and thought that Christmas gifts should be banned. 30% supported gifting to children only, and 46% of people embraced the concept of gifting to immediate family at Christmas. (Source : The Telegraph)


In reality, the debris from the gifting explosion has not reduced by half, rather it has continued to swell. As good a read Martin Lewis is, and as practical, and easily applicable his advice is, the statistics that he offers are not reliable, and as an entertainment economist his methods lack the rigor and reliability necessary to make valid observations. Ed West over at the spectator offered a set of anecdotal observations and statistics which were the polar opposite of the money saving experts. West ranted

“Some of my happiest memories as a child revolve around Christmas and rampant consumerism; sure, they concern things I probably didn’t need and which, to a spiritual, mature person are meaningless. But this festival is for children, and that’s why I never really get the whole anti-Christmas thing […] “ (Source : The Spectator)


Although I can hear the haters boo-hissing at West’s absorbed statements it’s worth continuing on to hear him out.

“[…]Since the industrial revolution and the growth of capitalism has allowed for the invention of childhood, by bringing down child mortality levels and creating a consumer market, Christmas has become essentially a celebration of children.”“[…]it all changed when I became a father aged 30, and I wonder to what extent one’s view on whether the whole thing is an awful commercialized a waste of time is correlated with whether one has children.”

While it takes a while to get to the crux of the logic, West’s love of Christmas is not a love of consumerism at all, so please put down the bucket of mouldy tomatoes as he finishes on a sweet high of


“Personally I love the consumerism of Christmas, simply because it makes children happy — and if people want to make a buck by making kids happy on Jesus’s birthday, then that’s hardly the worst thing that’s ever been done in the name of religion.”

As a mother, I find it hard to disagree with West. But I also find it hard to disagree with some aspects of what Lewis says. I love to see the look of joy on the faces of my children, no matter how old, when they see something that I’ve put my heart and soul into choosing just for them. But I also feel the immense pressure and misery of the wider gifting expectation, though for different reasons from those outlined by Lewis and West. It strikes me that the “the collective moaning about the commercialization of Christmas” (Source : Tis the Season to be snearing; Kristian Niemietzis a superficial exploit in order to draw traffic. When I started my brief fact-finding mission for this article I read through theoretically in formed

psychological research papers. While consumerism does come up, it is not the primary concern; Relationships are. For example, the way that parents use communication to unwittingly condone gift requesting behavior which may be frowned upon in a day-to-day context (Source : Clarke, 2013). Family relationships and the impact that the festive season has on family well being (Source : Páez et al., 2011is another example of the psychometric questions that are of bigger interest than the capitalist Christmas bashing / loving questions.


Gifting is a social construction in which we transmit meanings through token material symbols (Source: Finley Wolfinbarger, 1990), or, if I spit out the textbook (Source : Finley Wolfinbarger, 1990)the sentiments and efforts behind a gift are worth more to both recipient and gifter than the material goods. So while the narratives formed by capitalists, anticapitalists, industry, and author pull people in they don’t actually account for the real motivators behind gifting. While I don’t deny that the financial implications of purchasing material gifts are a stressor, they are only one relatively small stressor. The sentimental custom of the gift exchange engenders high levels of anxiety (Source : Sherry et al.), which is amplified by the sensory bombardment of product advertisements in the lead up to Christmas. Fear of interpersonal conflict and the associated negative emotions underpins gifting anxiety. In other words, if you’re worrying that you’ll choose a gift that causes disappointment, embarrassment, or worse still a row, then you’re not alone (Source : McGrath & Levy).

Choosing the perfect gifts for people you care about involves far more than picking a product off of the shelf. James Radack, vice president of public affairs for the National Mental Health Association says

“many factors help make the holidays so stressful: fatigue, unrealistic expectations, commercialization, financial constraints, and the inability to be with one’s family and friends.” (Source : WebMD)

But the limitations on time start before we even look at spending any together. While it’s not impossible to walk in to a shop or department store without a plan, spot something immediately and be happy that you’ve chosen an appropriate symbol of your gratitude, respect, or affection that the recipient will be delighted with it’s not the most common gift shopping experience, especially if you’re a woman. Research shows that we spend time researching and planning our gift choices, and for gifts with a higher material value we’re likely to take even longer. (Source : Cleveland et al). The tasks of researching, selecting and collecting gifts can present a demand for time, which many do not perceive themselves as having to spare at such a busy time of year. This acts as another stressor, as well as a neglected value which is never realized by recipients. If a working parent, juggling parenting, home, work, training and life don’t get time to sit and drink a cup of tea then the surely the act of making time to choose a token item is the bigger gift than the symbolic trinket?). It’s more than a little sad that the priority has moved from the time to the token symbol, but that’s another conversation.

What about the risk of dragging that big old elephant right out into the center of the room? Just picture the scene. It’s Boxing day, you’ve seen the family in the morning, and now the evening brings time to your dear friends. You sit together to exchange gifts. As you open yours to reveal a beautiful bracelet your heart sinks. You should be turning cartwheels with delight at your beautiful new gift but all you can think about is the coaster set that your friends are about to unwrap. Your brain starts the familiar internal argument, your heart speeds up and you feel awful. The fear of failing to hit the right note with your gifting choice is one thing. To find that your judgment is not only inappropriate but to also find that it is inadequate is the worst feeling in the world and has the power to make or break your Christmas.

“Fearing embarrassment or judgment, self-conscious people worried about what others think may spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to make the right impression and gain others’ approval with their gift giving. Will our gifts make us look like we’re thoughtful or thoughtless? Like spendthrifts or cheapskates? Will they fit with the group’s norms regarding how much effort or money to expend? Will our gifts look paltry or generous in comparison to others’ gifts? Will we be embarrassed that our gift is smaller than the one received?”    (Source : Burn)

Our brightly colored, carefully chosen parcels are so much more than capitalist cash drains, and the anxiety that gifting can bring those of us who are anxious, depressed or empathetic is vast. In one respect Martin Lewis is right. It would be easier to limit our gifting in order to reduce the burden on ourselves. But studies have consistently demonstrated that this course of action may not improve the stressful nature of Christmas gifting. Anecdotally, this course of action isn’t always as cut and dried as ending the joy of giving to one another. As someone who gifts to give, and who would prefer not to receive I was incredibly offended the first time someone asked that we stop the tradition of gifting because they didn’t want to choose gifts anymore. To the joyful gifter the pleasure is in the choosing and in loving you. This request inadvertently implies an assumption that I gift to receive. A crass notion at the best of times.

With such a strong case for the reality of gift anxiety, with an extensive body of evidence to support the argument that this is a real and pervasive phenomenon. But what can be done to reduce the effects that gift anxiety has on us in the lead up to Christmas and potentially beyond?

There is one big rule to stick to if you want to reduce your gifting anxiety immediately, and it’s a “do not”. The biggest rule of happy gifting is that you do not gift for the wrong reasons. Do not give to receive – be it adoration or compensation. Gifting should be altruistic, an act of love and generosity entered into purely for the giving. If you are choosing a gift based on what you have received in the past, based on a keepy-uppy spending amount, or to compete with another (for example trying to gift a parent a better gift than your sibling), you’re on the fast track to misery while looking through a clouded screen.

As always organization is paramount. Plan your christmas preparations like you’d plan a full blown project. List your gift shopping chores, your wrapping, your cards and of course factor in mailing and exchanging as far in advance as you can. Once you’ve marked in the skeleton of your schedule pen a few backup times and dates because you can’t always factor in life’s struggles in advance.

Research in advance where you can, the store’s promotion schedules. While some run extended promotions throughout the holiday season others run multiple shorter campaigns. Often these dates are available online. Take advantage of online shopping as much as possible, and don’t forget to use a cashback engine. I’ve clawed hundreds of pounds back from Top cashback over the last three years. If you do need to put it on plastic this year then search for the interest and transfer deals to make the most of your money.

Google for codes, use loyalty points and vouchers as much as you can. Personally, I use the freebie vouchers from our high street chemist to add little extras such as manicure or facial bundles in with gifts. For just a couple of pounds, I am about to give a package worth a lot of money. It’s thoughtful, it’s functional and it’s always gone down very well with loved ones.

Give a gift that reflects you as much as it reflects your recipient. In a study of 122 participants Paolacci et al found that gift recipients preferred a gift more if it matched the characteristics of the sender as it stimulated feelings of endearment. (Source : Elsevier) But joke with caution. Many authors tell you never to go there.

Gift giving is a serious business so, buy joke gifts at your own peril. Giving your mate prettily packaged cellulite cream is the equivalent of waging psychological warfare and collaterally taking out Christmas cheer all at the same time. Christmas is a time for love and comfort and suggesting someone has a BO problem by buying them deodorant – no matter how fancy or expensive – is untactful, unacceptable and cowardly. For shame, Grinch.  (Source : Elle)


Make a date of the big gift shopping trip. Go with friends, with your family or with your spouse. Go for hot chocolate or a lunch date in the middle. Take plenty of selfies for your Instagram, do whatever it takes, but make the trip a high point of the year.

Budget. Don’t bend it, or break it, or stretch it. Stick to it rigidly. While we’ve established that the capitalist aspects of Christmas gifting aren’t as central as often argued it would be irresponsible to pretend that they don’t exist. Raddack states “Finances have a huge impact on stress because there are so many expectations when it comes to presents, whether it’s at work or with family or friends.” (Source : WebMDGifts don’t have to break the bank. If you really don’t know what to get that fits inside your budget then ask the people on your list what their hopes, wants and needs are. You might be surprised to learn that someone is hankering for a pair of fluffy bed socks (yes, Hubby if you are reading, this is what I would like more than anything in the world at the moment. A pair of Fluffy cat themed bed socks!). If you can’t ask them directly, ask someone close to them and if that isn’t an option it’s not game over. The gift of jogging a memory can be as appreciated as a materialistic symbol. Maybe you went and saw a movie together and had a great night? Trigger the memory and start the conversation with a job lot of the cinema snack that they most enjoyed that night. If you’re a creative cookie then why not home-make the treats and present them in a trimmed jar? Maybe you went on a nature walk together? Reignite those memories with a candle that reminds them of the flowers that day. If memories are also thin on the ground then scope out their facebook. A nice framed print of the photo that received the most feedback from their friends this year is a sure-fire win. The point here is, that with a bit of out of the box thinking you can achieve a fabulous gift for a low cost.


Time for you suggests that we refocus our train of thought, placing an emphasis on the fun that Christmas is supposed to bring, rather than obsessing over the material. So why not suggest a break from gift-giving and instead each chip in to book a meal or trip out together, or organize a get together for which all parties pool time and resources to cater and clean up afterward?

Finally, the biggest gift doesn’t need a bow. Taking the time to tell people what we assume people implicitly realize but that we never explicitly say to them costs nothing, needs little time and minimal organization. Talking from the heart, telling someone that they’re important to you, or that you’d be lost without them is priceless. Tell those hard to buy for souls that you love them, that you’re grateful for their presence in your life, and that you’d be heartbroken if they vanished. It’ll cost you nothing but mean everything.

“Saying appreciative words, being warmer and accepting, helping out, or overlooking faults can spread holiday cheer better than the most elaborate table setting, festive drink, or gift.” Jo Robinson, co-author of Unplug the Christmas Machine.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. In my first edit, it’s eight pages of 12pt font. Congratulations if you’ve made it this far! I’d love to hear about what it is that stresses you out when it comes to gifting giving. I’d also really love to hear your coping strategies and your favorite gifting stories. As always, comment below and I’ll edit the best ones in & credit you. As we approach December keep your eyes peeled for more tips on coping with the festive psychological fatigue, where I’ll approach other subjects that matter to MCXV readers and separate the key issues in this epic into smaller quick reads. If there’s a Noel nightmare haunting you that you’d like unpicked then comment below and Santa’s psychology elves here at MCXV will try their best to help you out.

Further Reading :

  • 5 secrets to buying the perfect Christmas gift.
    By Team Elle (2015)
  • An exploratory cross-cultural analysis of the values of materialism.
    By Clarke and Micken (2002)
  • Christmas gift search behaviors (2003)
    By Cleveland, Babin, Laroche, and Ward.
  • Gift Anxiety, what it is and how you can avoid it.
    By Time for you cleaning
  • Gift giving anxiety
    By Burn (2014)
  • How to shake holiday gift giving anxiety
    By Hatfield (2005)
  • How to take the stress out of your Christmas
    By Time for you cleaning
  • I love the commercialization of Christmas (2015)
    by West
  • It’s time to ban Christmas presents
    By Martin Lewis.
  • Merry Christmas and a happy new year: The impact of Christmas rituals on subjective well-being and the families emotional climate.
    By Paez, Bilabo, Bobowik, Campos & Basabe (2017)
  • Motivations and Symbolism in Gift-Giving Behavior (1990)
    by Finley Wolfinbarger
  • The dark side of the gift (1993)
    by Sherry, McGrath & Levy.

Dorne Warner

I'm a freelancer with a diverse range of professional experience and a passionate interest in the human experience. I've spent 20 years working across a range of communicative platforms and online communities. My absolute favourite was 7 years in a voluntary capacity with iVillage UK. In this role, I was able to break the constraints of contracted work and discovered a passion for connecting with service users in order to feedback to HQ. This role generated a depth of understanding of the client experience from which the management was able to improve their service. I refer to this as my favourite because although voluntary iVillage UK helped me to find my speciality and develop my professional skill set. I currently manage an osteopathic practice. By implementing the deeper level of client understanding I have successfully enhanced the treatment experience, dispelled patient anxiety, and shortened prescription lengths. This enhanced service has improved client return rates and word of mouth recommendations. I've also successfully enhanced staff experience. Happy staff are integral to achieving happy clients. My strengths include safeguarding and risk assessment. At a personal level, I am highly motivated and self-critical. I strive to improve myself in order to deliver better results for my employers. My colleagues describe me as intuitive, supportive, and 'useful to have around'. I thrive in positions in which I can support others. I also thrive while self-improving. I remain a student with the open university, with whom I studied for my BSc (Hons) Psychology & am reading an MSc path with. I thrive in support roles. I am freelancing and available for ghostwriting, project management, short-format feature articles and charity work.
  • Caz Foxcroft

    Personally I love giving gifts, I love the process of working within a budget to find or make something that is particularly suitable for the recipient. I spend a lot more time than money on most of my gifts and often make handmade presents for people so I don’t particularly worry about price tags. I suppose that makes me terrible to buy for because I will be the person who has trawled around for a perfect present but who will get a bulk-bought bottle of wine or bubble bath in return (I don’t particularly like wine and only use a shower).
    I am trying to teach my children that we give for the pleasure of seeing people’s reactions rather than for tangible returns but the keeping up with the Joneses mentality is pervasive, especially over social media platforms x

  • Danielle

    I agree that this is the most capitalized day of the year, when long ago in my childhood it was about the birth of Christ. I really don’t know what it has become anymore other than a stressful, overpriced month where people are willing to gain an extra 20 pounds and dry out their savings in order to participate. I love the idea of giving, and gifting an experience is irreplaceable and of the utmost value in my opinion. I love your idea of pooling money so that everyone can take part in an excellent meal, party or vacation.