Any day now quite a few churlish readers are going to start their annual round of muttering. Just as the world is transforming itself into a wonderland of cascading tinsel, cherubs and illuminated trees, some humanist somewhere is sure to have begun ranting about the pointless vulgarity of it all. You won't catch one of these intellectual purists giving in to seasonal pressures. Not for them the gold wrapping paper, brandy–soaked apricots, David Beckham boxers, marzipan fruit cakes and overpriced port with slivers of stilton. And certainly not for them the absurd ritual of sending cards to people they see every day at work anyway or, even more absurdly, people they energetically avoid for the rest of the year.

But while you are proudly eschewing the annual orgy of giving and receiving, wasting and squandering, you may not be aware of the psychic darkness lurking behind your smug disapproval. If you don't allow yourself to join in the festive bout of bonding and binding you are turning your back on one of mankind's most fundamental vehicles of societal affirmation. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas puts it: "By ignoring the universal custom of compulsory gifts we make our own record incomprehensible to ourselves: right across the globe and as far back as we can go in the history of human civilisation, the major transfer of goods has been by cycles of obligatory returns of gifts."

It could be that your revulsion at Christmas may have less to do with your atheism than with a fear of revealing too much about yourself. In his seminal work The Gift, the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, observes: "To make a gift of something to someone is to make a present of some part of oneself." Or, as a philosopher boyfriend once remarked as he unwrapped my favourite novel of the moment, Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook: "All gifts are propaganda."

While all presents carry meaning, those we give to lovers positively groan under the weight of their messages. Clothes? Too intimate. Ties for men? Too bold a sexual statement. Socks? You're cruelly relegating him to the status of a favourite uncle.

Gold and precious jewels will always convey hints of the dowry; sentimentalised as symbols of eternity, it's their market value that really matters. These days, you'd hope men no longer need to woo with riches any more than they need to display their feathers and their finery. The attractive 21st century man is the one who can operate with his mind. But I'd think twice if I were you before offering her a bound copy of your thesis, or some brilliant bluetooth device that downloads all her favourite tracks in order while telling her what's moulding in the fridge.

Not all women appreciate having their no–nonsense side appealed to. My most ardently feminist friend was aghast when presented by her partner with the practical gift he was sure couldn't strike any jarring chords: a toolkit. How could she possibly admit after all those years of declaiming and disapproving that actually she would have adored some expensive red satin underwear?

With so many traps waiting to ensnare the unwary we shouldn't be surprised that more and more of us are resorting to gifts that are less likely to betray our vulnerable cores. A recent survey revealed that houses up and down the land are heaving with countless electrical gadgets which somehow no one can bring themselves to give away. These are the safe option when it comes to gifts. How could you go wrong with a bread–maker or fondue set? There are no difficult aesthetic considerations, unless you're fussy about the very idea of sharing a mess of melted cheese, or the floury taste of underdone sundried tomato loaf. They provide both novelty and thoughtfulness, a perfectly balanced mix of the original and the practical.

Where the yogurt maker and the knife sharpener, the cappuccino frother and the soda streamer really come into their own, of course, is the wedding present. You won't be judged, you won't have to risk betraying your outré choices in chinaware. The gadget is the answer to a thousand taste problems, and the more gifts we need to buy the more ingenious the new wares.

All those inventors, thinking up ever more unnecessary ways to perform faster a myriad tasks we never even dreamed of attempting before – you may write it off as another obscene capitalist trick to create what no one wants. A more benevolent interpretation is that the fad for gadgets is a 21st century form of gift economy, not unlike those of more primitive peoples.

In the potlatches of the Chinook, Nootka, and other Pacific Northwest peoples, for example, chiefs vied to give the most blankets and other valuables. More generally, in hunter–gatherer societies the hunter's status was not determined by how much of the kill he ate, but rather by what he brought back for others.

Among the Trobriand peoples in Papua New Guinea, an elaborate exchange system operates: the Kula. Valuable goods like yam, banana leaves, decorated skirts and jewellery circulate in a highly organised itinerary round the islands. Traders are awarded various ranks of shells which denote their success and power. Once you have obtained a famous high–ranking shell your own name becomes known around the ring, on islands and in villages you may never have even visited.

Often these gifts are exchanged in special ceremonies where participants compete to appear the most beneficent, because status is accorded to those who give the most to others. Over–production of valued commodities is dictated and controlled by their exchange. Tribes and families are united by the gift–giving, hierarchies cemented, co–operation and inter–dependence underlined.

In just the same way, our gift–giving will often accompany rites of passage like a wedding, when dynasties are united and a new alliance is formed. The generosity of the gift speaks of the largesse of the giver and the confident hope of a reasonable return when the next wedding comes around. So maybe the proliferation of crème brulée blow torches, garlic peelers, advanced triple sandwich makers, home pedicures, blood pressure gauges and singing toilet seats is merely another version of the yams and the blankets, the banana leaves and hubba pipes.

The other great rite of passage within the gift economy is birth, when a new member of the latest tribal alliance must be welcomed. Here, too, the generosity of the giver jostles alongside the public display of wealth, as in the gifts of the three kings to the baby Jesus. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were the early precursors of the luxury car seat buggy, electric mobile and carrycot — not to mention the offshore bonds and high interest baby ISAs. Those kings were bestowing the most expensive items in the vaults, appropriate for monarchs to present to a prince. Especially that prince.

Personally, I'm more taken by the gifts bestowed on the precious princess by her fairy godmothers in Sleeping Beauty. One granted her beauty, another modesty, a third grace, a fourth a lovely singing voice. Only the wicked fairy spoiled the banquet, if you recall. Furious at having been left off the guest list, she arrived in a thunderbolt and pronounced her terrible curse of death by spinning wheel.

Humanists perplexed at what to give at Christmas when in fact we don't feel we should celebrate Christmas at all might take comfort from this splendid tradition. Forget the nutcrackers and the silver nose clippers, the balloon flight or the pilot lessons. Give instead something truly cerebral. You could offer the gifts of scepticism, passion, moral anxiety, wisdom, hope. And irony. Just choose an extremely clever and aggressively stylish card. And send it with a year's subscription to the New Humanist.

Parents, Presents and Propaganda

Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner

What, if anything, will you be celebrating this Christmas?

I don't celebrate Christmas. Why would I want to celebrate a festival in honour of a religion that has provoked catastrophic global persecution, wars and genocide?

What is the best/worst gift you've ever received?

The worst: John Major's biography; what possessed someone to think that I would be interested in the life of a nice but dull Tory Prime Minister? The best: an atlas when I was eight. It opened my eyes to the whole wide world and encouraged me to plot my escape from the suffocating, repressive conformity of the inner–city working class ghetto, in Melbourne, Australia, where I grew up.

What is the best/worst gift you've ever given?

The worst gift I have ever given was a pair of platform shoes (a great idea at the time, but a hideous mistake about a year later). My best gift was probably a large chunk of my childhood, from the age of seven to 16, which I gave up to care for my brother and two sisters for the long periods when our mother was seriously ill.

'All gifts are propaganda'. True or false?

Most gifts (especially material ones) are propaganda or bribes, but not always. Altruism isn't entirely dead and buried by the selfishness and commercialism of modern life.

Cillian Murphy, actor

What, if anything, will you be celebrating this Christmas?

For me Christmas is a celebration of family. It tends to be the only holiday when everyone makes the effort to eat together, give gifts and fight with their siblings. Not being religious means while I am aware of the symbolism, I find the general feeling of goodwill, generosity and refection more important.

What is the best/worst gift you've ever received?

I'm not a terribly organised person. A couple of years ago my parents gave me a filing cabinet. I think that says it all.

What is the best/worst gift you've ever given?

I remember being a broke student and giving my brother a lottery ticket in one of those little lottery–produced Christmas cards. I think he got two stars. Which is lottery for nothing. I gave my dad who is a genuine handyman a leatherman tool which he loves and still wears on his belt today.

'All gifts are propaganda'. True or false?

Obviously the advertising is too much, and I think the biggest victims are young kids who get given so much that nothing remains special or unique to them. This was summed up best in an episode of The Simpsons when Homer comes into money and gives Maggie this elaborate gift and Maggie promptly discards it and begins playing happily with the bubble–wrap.

Polly Toynbee, journalist and author

What, if anything, will you be celebrating this Christmas?

Family, winter festival, the turn of the year, Christmases past, childhood, growing older, a new grandchild, a fine 83–year–old matriarch, continuity, counting contentments and remembering how lucky we are.

What is the best/worst gift you've ever received?

Best and worst: a photocopier my husband gave me that made me very angry at the time, for its utility and dullness, but I started a small syndication business with it years ago which got me through a time when my children were very young.

What is the best/worst gift you've ever given?

A complicated Lego castle to my small son that had me up all night trying to put it together and never quite looked like the picture on the box. But in the end he played with it all year.

'All gifts are propaganda'. True or false?

False. I love presents, given and received, for all their anxiety–making aspects. Not propaganda, but they may be manipulative and competitive sometimes. My brother has given up and is famous for cards with PTF (Present to Follow) written on them; we all know it never does.