You know it’s December in Japan when the department stores are packed with お歳暮 (o-seibo, year-end gift) shoppers, most of whom are businesspeople who’ll have to make their end-of-year 挨拶回り (aisatsu mawari, greeting rounds) for their clients, gift in hand.
In Japan, お歳暮 and 挨拶 (aisatsu, greetings) are among the oldest traditions in the book. Typical お歳暮 are seasonal foods and/or alcohol, like a box of beer cans or a big bottle of sake. In the summer, the same gifts are called お中元 (o-chūgen, mid-year gifts).
When giving a gift, the verb to use is 贈る (okuru), a homonym of the verb 送る(okuru, to send). Maybe it’s just me but on paper and on the screen, 贈る looks more festive and expectant than 送る, which is associated with deliveries and email.
お歳暮(の品)を贈らせていただきます (O-seibo [no shina]o okurasete-itadakimasu, I would be honored if you let me give you this year-end gift) is the widely accepted phrase to use during the season. You can also add the phrases 今年もお世話になりました (kotoshi mo o-sewa ni narimashita, thank you for taking care of me this year) and ぜひ、皆様で召し上がってください (zehi, mina-sama de meshiagatte kudasai, please enjoy this with everyone). You can replace 皆様 with ご家族 (go-kazoku, family) if, for example, you’re speaking to your teacher.
When you’re on the receiving end of this conversation, answer with a humble お歳暮を頂き、ありがとうございます (o-seibo o itadaki, arigatō gozaimasu, thank you for your gift) or ご丁寧にありがとうございます (go-teinei ni arigatō gozaimasu , thank you for your thoughtful gift).
The noun form of 贈る is 贈り物 (okurimono), which means present or gift, and it feels more personal and less obligatory than お歳暮 does. When presenting someone with a gift, it’s nice to say, “つまらないものですが” (“Tsumaranaimono desu ga,” “This is just a little thing”), to which they may reply, “えっ、ありがとうございます、嬉しいいです” (“E, arigatō gozaimasu, ureshii desu,” “What? Thank you very much, I’m so happy”).
Among friends and family, gift-giving is more casual and people will refer to presents simply as プレゼント (purezento). 贈る is also likely to be replaced by the verb あげる (ageru, give), so while we お歳暮を贈る, we’re more likely to プレゼントをあげる (purezento o ageru, to give a present).
The recipient of a gift might be even happier if they can unwrap it in front of you, just like they may have done when they were a kid. Luckily, department stores in Japan usually offer gift-wrapping services. My approach is to mention at the register, “プレゼントなんですが…” (“Purezento nan desu ga…,” “This is a present…”) making sure to pronounce the “が” a bit more like “nga.” Depending on the store, you may be asked “お包みしますか” (“O-tsutsumi shimasu ka?,” “Shall I wrap it for you?”). Meticulous gift wrapping used to be a service that customers enjoyed with no extra charge but these days, the art of 包み (tsutsumi, wrapping) is dying out. When it does happen, expect to hear the word ラッピング (rappingu) used instead, 包み sounds so formal. Excess wrapping is frowned upon as エコじゃない(eko janai, non-ecological) and many shops now simply paste a ribbon onto a plastic bag and call it a gift. Though I don’t know that plastic bags are any more environmentally friendly.
Another way of saying gift in Japanese is 贈答品 (zōtōhin). As is the case with お歳暮, these gifts are for more formal situations. Looking at the kanji used in the word, you’ll see the same kanji that’s used in 答える (kotaeru, to answer/reply) is employed here and, indeed, 贈答品 can indicate that these are return favors (return presents can also be called 返礼品 [henreihin]). Gift reciprocation is a fairly common practice worldwide, and back in the Heian Era (794-1185) it was customary for the aristocracy to send 和歌 (waka) poems to one another. Lovers especially, would gauge each other’s feelings or what they had been doing with the 返歌 (henka, response poem) to the original waka.
The opposite of あげる is もらう (morau, to receive), and while お歳暮 sits at the top tier of formal gift-giving, 貰い物 (moraimono) is more casual. It’s still a gift, but doesn’t carry as much fanfare as a プレゼント would — it’s just something that was given. In fact there’s a Japanese idiom that goes, 貰い物のあらを探すな (moraimono no ara o sagasuna, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth). A fine thing to remember during the holiday season.