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Bearing Gifts, We Travel So Far

By B. Kimberly Taylor

his December, people around the world will be celebrating a variety of holidays infused with cultural and personal rituals, traditions and festivities. Gifts often have a unique significance that varies from culture to culture. So, it behooves you to know exactly what your gift will mean in the context of a particular religion or country. Here's a roundup of holidays celebrated in December across the globe, followed by an overview of gifts and their distinctive meanings in different parts of the world.

HANUKKAH: For eight days in December or November, Jews celebrate Hanukkah, and light candles in an eight-hole candleholder called a menorah. This ritual is a symbol of an ancient miracle--a time when one day's worth of oil lasted eight days. Singing songs celebrate the holiday, and children spin a top called a dreidel to win chocolate coins, nuts or raisins. An example of food relished by families on Hanukkah is a potato pancake called a latke.

ST. LUCIA DAY: On December 13, girls in Sweden honor this third-century saint by donning long white gowns with red sashes and by placing a wreath of lit candles upon their heads. They wake their families with fresh coffee and braided saffron buns called Luciacats, while singing songs.

CHRISTMAS: Christians around the world generally celebrate by decorating trees in their homes, going to church, exchanging gifts, and waiting to see what gifts "Santa" places under the tree. In parts of Europe, "star singers" carol and walk behind an enormous star atop a pole. Santa Claus's name was derived from Saint Nicholas, a bishop of the town of Myra noted for his kindness to children. Myra is currently part of Turkey.

KWANZAA: Kwanzaa means "first fruits" and originates with ancient African harvest time festivals. This is a holiday that emphasizes unity, community and family life. Celebrated from December 26 through January 1st, millions of African Americans adorn their homes with fruits and vegetables, light a candleholder called a kinara, and wear special clothes reminiscent of artful African textiles. Families display ears of corn during Kwanzaa to signify how many children there are in the family, and those without children set out one ear of corn to show that they are parents of the community at large.

GIFT GIVING that would be well-received and deemed appropriate anywhere in the world is a daunting task. When gift-giving across countries or cultures, you can rarely go wrong when giving gifts that represent your particular region of the world. For example, food, picture books and crafts from your town or state would be a good bet for a gift.

GIFTS WITH COMPANY LOGOS are ill advised, as it would be assumed that they are free for you. Also, alcohol is tricky. If you bring wine to a dinner party, the host may feel it should be opened and poured, even though specific wines may have already been chosen to complement the cuisine. Fine vodka, wine, whiskey or brandy can be an appropriate gift for friends you know well, but not for acquaintances, as some people may be on a diet or abstaining. Also, observant Muslims do not drink alcohol. Excessive or extravagant gift-giving could be misconstrued as a bribe in business relationships, so be aware of this perception. Joke gifts such as a rubber President Bush mask will not translate well, for cultural and perhaps even personal reasons. Better save that one for the in-laws.

IN WEST AFRICA AND CHINA, giving knives is a symbol of severing a relationship, and they are considered just a wee bit unlucky as gifts in Ireland too. Timepieces such as watches or clocks are considered unlucky by Cantonese-speaking people, as (once again) the word for clock is similar to the word for death. Giving a handkerchief will signify grief, and giving a green hat will suggest adultery to Cantonese speakers, though I cannot exactly say why.

FLORAL GIFTS have a few thorny issues. In Europe red carnations are symbols for Socialists. Chrysanthemums, calla lilies, white asters and dahlias are used to adorn grave-sites, so these should be avoided as well. In Germany, you must unwrap the floral gift before presenting it, and in Central America flowers are not considered a good gift because they are so inexpensive there. Red flowers are associated with evil spirits in Central America and yellow blossoms are associated with death. Marigolds are left at grave sites, so white flowers are the safest bet--if you must present flowers--in Central America. In Europe, presenting an odd number of blossoms is best, but six or twelve flowers are considered fine. For Cantonese-speaking people, the word four sounds like the word for death, so this number is considered unlucky. Two, six and eight are considered to be good numbers by the Chinese, but one is not favorable.

THE PRESENTATION OF THE GIFT is extremely important in many countries. Be sure to wrap the gift with care and flair, and in Japan, always present and receive gifts with both hands. Gifts in Europe are given after a business agreement has been reached, and they will be opened on the spot, as they also will be in north and South America. In Asian countries gifts are given after a business meeting, and generally will not be opened in the presence of the giver.

THE BEST GIFT OF ALL is your good intention, well-wishes, warmth and, in some cases, your adoration. These are non-refundable, and always fit the situation.

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