Christmas in Washington means the exchange of gifts by friends from scores of different countries. While it is the thought, of course, that counts, what looks good to one national could be offensive to another.
Black, for example, is bad luck from Japan to Ethiopia, but all right if there are any Middle-East oil sheiks you want to impress with a gift. Most African countries prefer bold colors and if they represent the colors of their flag, so much the better; red, however, is often associated with witchcraft, Satan, and death in some religions.
"Take an Italian to lunch," hints Lucia, who arrived in his country last summer from Amalfi.
"A nice, Italian meal always reminds an Italian of Italy -- tomato, pasta, salad, red, white, and green, the colors of the Italian flag." Purple and the number 17 are negatives to Italians, she says.
Almost everywhere, 7 is good luck and 13 is bad. Japanese, Colombians, and Egyptians also consider three and five as positive signs. But don't make the mistake of a leading U.S. golf-ball manufacturer and package away four of something for a Japanese friend; the number signifies death. Gifts that are religious reminders are also very risky, unless you know the religion exceedingly well.
Here's a checklist:
Afghanistan -- Red and green are excellent colors; pictures of pigs and dogs and the numbers 13 and 39 are to be avoided.
Argentina -- Red, green, and yellow are fine, but black, brown and purple could be offensive.
Botswana -- Light blue, black, white, and green are postive, as are odd numbers. Five golden rings, three French hens, and a partridge in a pear tree would be welcome.
Chad -- White, pink, and yellow are acceptable, but black and red unlucky. Odd numbers are negative; even numbers positive. Four calling birds or two turtledoves? (Figures of pigs are considered unclean by Moslems.)
Colombia -- Bright and bold reds, blues and yellows are well liked and sets of three, five, or seven especially favored.
Congo -- Animal images and names make for bad luck here.
Czechoslovakia -- Red, white, and blue are liked; black is shunned.
Denmark -- Red, white, and blue are favored; hearts at Christmas are loved.
Egypt -- Dark colors, particularly purple, are disliked. Three, five, seven, and nine are nice numbers.
Ethiopia -- Black is negative, but bold, bright colors are well liked. Careful about religious symbols.
Germany -- Red and color combinations of red, black and white, or brown should be avoided. Germans like everything associated with the American Indian, the Western and the cowboy, say Foreign Service officers, but there is a catch. Trademarks and emblems resembling the swastika are illegal and the Indian cross is often confused with it.
Ghana -- Black is bad luck, and so are 7, 11, 13, and 17. Stick with bright colors.
Greece -- American items in bold yellow, green, blue, or white would be fine.
India -- If a number ends in a zero, it is bad luck, but if it can be divided by three, seven, or nine, it is good luck. Pastels, black, and white are out, while green, yellow, red, and orange are in.
Japan -- Considered positive are one, three, five, and eight, while four and nine are negative. Black, dark gray, and black-white combinations are to be avoided along with many bold colors. Muted red and white and gold and silver are well liked.
Kenya -- Any number ending in seven is bad luck.
Kuwait -- Brown, black, green, dark blues and reds and white are preferred; pink, violet and yellow rejected. Bold is best and round and square are strong.
Liberia -- "Once a product is perceived as popular with and widely used by black Americans," says a U.S. official here, "it becomes readily acceptable." Bright, bold colors please; black is negative.
Libya -- Avoid the female anatomy; green is a favored color.
Madagascar -- The owl should be avoided, along with black.
Mauritania -- Subtle with the colors here; white is right and so, too, are green and yellow.
Nicaragua -- Avoid national identities such as triangular shapes and blue-white-blue stripes. Respect the cross.
Nigeria -- Even numbers are okay and odd numbers bad, as are red and black.
Pakistan -- As bad as 13 is 420. Green, silver, and gold are favored and bold colors preferred to muted. Careful with Islamic gifts.
Peru -- Bright colors of red, fuchsia and yellow are great. Careful with Catholic gifts.
Uruguay -- Yellow and black and red, white, and blue represent the colors of football rivals; you could be less than popular if you use them incorrectly.
Venezuela -- Flag colors in the sequence yellow-blue-red are in bad taste. American gadgets go especially well here.
Vietnam -- Black and white are mourning colors. The dragon is lucky, but be careful about which of the 12 signs (animals) the recipient of your gift was born under; and, if you are going out to dinner, the fifth, 14th, and 23rd days of the lunar calender are unlucky.