Bear with me. Soon Christmas will be over, and I’ll stop talking about what a stressful holiday it is for women. But I’ve just spent the week organizing presents, and want to vent a little about holiday gift-giving.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against gift-giving in principle. Finding a wonderful gift for just one person is fun and feels good. With Christmas, alas, that’s not the situation…you may need to get gifts for a dozen or more people, all at the same time.

This is particularly taxing if you believe gifts should reflect your sensitive understanding of what would make each recipient happy.

I’ve cut my gift list down drastically over the years in the interest of sanity, but there was a time when I gave gifts to immediate family, extended family, friends, co-workers, bosses, employees, neighbors, my children’s teachers, and so on. It was a massive undertaking.

I was explaining to my husband the other day how complex and demanding holiday gift-giving is for women. He was incredulous. Guys just don’t do this stuff.

But women are different from men. We’re relationship-oriented, sensitive to nuance and subtext, and often have a perfectionist streak. We also can’t bear to think we might ever disappoint or offend anyone, a fear that causes us to follow a set of inner “shoulds” regarding gift-giving.

Which brings me to the unwritten rules of holiday giving. Let me be clear: these aren’t rules I’m advocating….they’re rules we’ve all internalized to some degree. It’s helpful to bring them to consciousness and examine them.

  1. Since a gift is a token of affection or esteem, the lack of a gift could be interperted as a sign of indifference.
  2. If someone gives a gift to you, you must give a gift to them.
  3. Once you start exchanging gifts with someone, you must continue forever, or risk violating rule #2.
  4. Reciprocal gifts should be equal in value. The exception is where there is a difference in rank (such as boss/employee).
  5. Real gifts should be exchanged with real gifts, token gifts with tokens.
  6. You can’t give the same thing every year without risking looking lazy and/or unimaginative.
  7. The value of a gift can increase from year to year, but shouldn’t noticeably decrease.
  8. If you give to one person in a group (say, co-workers) you must give to everyone in the group, lest someone feel slighted.
  9. Gifts to individuals in a group should be of similar value, particularly if there’s a chance they might compare.
  10. Gifts must be delivered on or before December 25th.

So what do you think? Do these feel familiar, or is it just me? Am I missing any? Do we really need to be ruled by these rules?