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Last Updated: Monday, 24 December 2007, 11:31 GMT
How to receive a goat (and other unglamorous gifts)
Family exchanging gifts

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

You wanted a Nintendo Wii, you got a goat. Charity presents aren't top of everyone's Christmas list, but it would be churlish to show disappointment. So what's the best way to receive one?

Getting a knitted jumper every year from Aunt Agatha on Christmas Day ought to warrant an Oscar category of its own: Best Display of Fawning Gratitude in Adverse Circumstances.

Charity gifts, however, are a more complex proposition. For a start, they can come from unexpected quarters. And while all you get is a card to verify the purchase of said gift, someone several thousand miles away should see their life immeasurably improved by this act of generosity.

Yet sometimes those selfish feelings are hard to supress and there will be the nagging sense that giving a goat to a nomadic Sudanese tribe feels better for the giver than you, the nominal receiver. But with the eyes of the family bearing down on Christmas morning, the last thing you will want to do is betray this sense of disillusion.

It would be bad form and wrong to act disappointed
Jo Bryant
Editor of Etiquette for Girls
"I don't think you should ever show disappointment," says Jo Bryant, editor of the Debrett's books Etiquette for Girls and Manners for Men. "Someone has put time, effort and expense into buying it."

Say how much you like it and be gracious, she says, and consider how you would like others to react getting your presents.

"This is especially true if you're given something that's doing good for someone else."

Etiquette expert Mary Killen agrees. "It's better than not being given anything and very few people would insult you with a present. Even mean people," she says.

But a goat is quite a pompous thing to give, she says, because it's moralising passively and by proxy.

Liz Brewer of ITV's Ladette to Lady takes up the theme. Charity should not be imposed on others, says Ms Brewer. The trick, she says, is to dress up your disappointment with humour.

"Say 'This is a wonderful thought and I really appreciate you thinking of me' but make a joke of it - 'I've got enough to worry about without having to look after this whatever it is.'"

Celine Dion opening a present
1. Higher temperature
2. Constricted pupils
3. Clammy hands
4. Higher blood pressure
5. Neck rash
6. Raised toes
It's not just charity gifts that can be underwhelming - every family has at least one aunt Agatha. And in a society where presents are often bought by a few casual clicks of a mouse, expectations are increasingly likely to be dashed.

So if you are going to feign delight, you need to know how to do it properly. And that means identifying tell-tale signs, says body language expert Robert Phipps. (See factbox, right, for giveaway signs of disappointment.)

"There's a general rule that most people are brought up polite and dress up their language so not to upset people.

"When this happens, you have a rise in body temperature because it's a moment of tension and if wired up to a polygraph, it would look for things like raised blood pressure and skin temperature."

A faker may raise their ankles (if seated) or raise their toes in their shoes (standing), which is a way they "ground" or "unground" themselves unconsciously when lying.

This is because, says Mr Phipps, the feet are the part of the body furthest from the brain and the hardest to control consciously.

Someone genuinely thrilled with a present would have dilated pupils for about half a second, but constricted ones if unhappy.

Judi James
You go over the top and make out it's the best present you've ever had in your life. It's horrible to watch
Judi James

It's very hard to fake a real smile under these circumstances, says social behaviour expert Judi James.

The very first facial response is the truthful one and this is quickly replaced with a different, faked expression, she says.

A good idea is to present the first reaction as a joke by saying "It's horrible" but then add "Only kidding".

Other options are to hide your face by bending over and pretending to fiddle with the Sellotape, or imagine a beautiful gift instead. But you have to be quite a thespian to pull it off, she warns.

One thing to watch out for is becoming "over-congruent" with the body language and over-displaying pleasure due to embarrassment.

"You go over the top and make out it's the best present you've ever had in your life. It's horrible to watch. And if you're unlucky they buy you the same thing the next year."


So what to do with unwanted presents?

Don't follow the extreme approach adopted by writer Nancy Mitford, says Ms Killen. Mitford threw her sister Deborah's Christmas present on to the log fire, she was so disgusted with it, but her honesty won the admiration of her sibling.

It's far better to find a happy recipient, she says. Teachers can get as many as 35 presents from pupils and many of them end up on eBay or in charity shops.

Or "re-gift" presents by wrapping them up and giving them to someone else.

When people are very busy socially, or in cultures like Japan, a gift is purely a gesture and so it's the act rather than the content that matters.

A selection of your comments appears below.

As a 40-year-old working professional, I don't really *need* anything so last year I asked for charity donations. Many people didn't heed the requests, but my 'main' present was clean drinking water for 150 people. It was the most emotional present I'd ever had and I still well up when I think about it now. After all, what do I need compared with basic drinking water. If all the money we spend on Christmas for ONE YEAR was given to charity I'm convinced we'd wipe out poverty and disease for ever.
Bill Turner, Bristol

I have in the past given gifts that people haven't liked, not intentionally I hasten to add. Although watching them sweat and squirm was funny at the time, I would have been happier if they had been honest and told me that they didn't like it, I always keep my receipts just in case. My opinion is be polite at the time then find the right time to be honest. They might be a little upset at the time but at least they will know not to get you it again
Evelyn, Greenock, Scotland

Actually I would be quite insulted and offended if someone "gave" me a charity gift. That person hasn't spent any "time and effort" on this merely given in to their guilt at my cost. They are in effect saying to me that their guilt is greater than their affection/friendship to me and that in their eyes I am of little worth. It would irretrievably damage our friendship.
Paolo, St Albans

I actually asked for charity gifts this year as I have a houseful of tat, and would rather that my friends and relations spent the money where it will do some good rather than on me. All the givers resoundingly refused, and said - no, really, what do you want for Christmas! Looks like Oxfam and eBay will do well from me again this year
Sue, Gatwick

Last year for Christmas I received a second-hand, supermarket own-brand, bright turquoise, acrylic, size 22 (I'm a 16), low-cut, spaghetti-strapped summer blouse with a costume jewellery brooch and food down the front. I held it up in front of my face while I tried to deal with the mixed emotions that welled to the surface and groped for some gracious words of acceptance. Unfortunately, the words that came out of my mouth were, "I'll never wear that in a million years!" Yes, I was hurt... but it transpired that the giver wasn't very well at all.
Shriekaboo, Hiding, UK

Personally I'd love a charity gift for Christmas, it is the season for peace and good will on earth to all mankind. I have actually bought someone a goat as well, and I know they will love it, pompous or otherwise!
Charlotte, London

I think charity gifts are a wonderful idea, but I'd like to see a bit of variety in the sort of options available to buy. Perhaps they could have a "Sponsor a Squaddie" option, where you could send CDs, DVDs, Video Games or even toiletries and confectionary to a member of the Armed Forces serving overseas?
Murdoch MacKinnon, Inverness, UK

I donīt have a family, so I buy my own present, usually a book that I wouldnīt normally buy.
Roge Wheeler, Vallarta Mexico

If your focus really is all about getting presents then you don't deserve any. Pure and simple.
Alison, Ealing, London

Surely, if someone knows you well and really did put a lot of thought and effort into getting you a present, then it wouldn't be a disappointing one? If someone gave me a gift I didn't like, I'd know that person either didn't know me well enough, or didn't care, or both.
Rob, London UK

If you'd rather spend limited funds on gifts to charity rather than to friends then just have the honesty to say "No presents this year, I gave my money to Oxfam" rather than these squirm-inducing faux 'presents' - if your friends are too shallow to cope that tells you something about them!
Megan, Cheshire UK

I don't really celebrate Christmas, as I'm not at all religious and don't have children. Without either of these, I find the whole affair rather empty. I actually asked for a charity donation to be made in my name this year. However, my suggestion was met with outright horror and exclamations of "I can't do that, I have to buy you something!". I hate the consumerism that grips people at this time of year. I adopt a "Bah! Humbug!" attitude, which amuses my friends and family, but they don't take seriously. If someone does give me a gift I don't like, I'm usually honest about it, which doesn't go down well, and may appear ungrateful, however I'd rather people didn't waste their cash buying me useless tat.
Charlie Boyd, Edinburgh, UK

Every year my family sends me the infamous gift box by post filled with sweets and biscuits and cheap tat from China along with clothes that never fit me even when I was aged ten years. I finally found a solution. I bring the sweets and biscuits into work one tin a day and the sharks eat it up. In fact last week they took one of the tins and used it to draw the numbers from for the prize raffle at the Christmas luncheon. Other pseudo food gifts like cheese that requires no refrigeration and pretend sausages were passed along to my hair stylist who loved it and the women who perform a minor miracle on my runner's toes with a pedicure every six weeks. The clothes went to charity and the cheap tat was used to clean with then binned. I no longer dread the arrival of the infamous Christmas parcel.
Candace, New Jersey, US

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