Perhaps there is no wrong way to exchange Christmas gifts, but in a hurried rendezvous just off junction six of the M40 must come close. My sister was furious; we had planned to go for a walk in the woods together the day before Christmas Eve, one of the safest activities imaginable. No longer: true to form, the prime minister had promised far more than seemed possible, realised it wasn’t possible after all, and then snatched it all away in a tumble of confusion. If the present-swap was to be legal, we had just hours to get it done.
As I drove to the rendezvous, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. For 15 years I’ve been writing columns discussing the problem with Christmas gifts, and now we were testing the idea to destruction. If nothing remained of Christmas except the presents, what would I do? The situation revealed the answer: at almost any cost, I’d hand over the damn presents.
We economists have a troubled relationship with gift exchange. Our objection is simple: people are not very good at buying Christmas presents. To a brother-in-law who likes cricket, we give a cricket-themed tchotchke whose sole purpose is to symbolise the fact that we know he likes cricket.
To a music-lover, we give CDs, not realising that she threw out the CD player years ago and listens only to vinyl. The shirt is lovely but does not fit; the toys would have been cool three years ago; the book is so perfectly chosen that in fact the recipient read it over the summer. Many pitfalls lie in wait even for a gift-giver who has empathy, imagination and patience — and by mid December many of us are running low on all three.
This problem was first formally studied in the early 1990s by Joel Waldfogel, economist and author of Scroogenomics. Each Christmas we divert scarce resources of energy, raw materials, skill and time to producing unwanted gifts that will end up as fodder for landfill. It’s no joke.
But economists have an image problem, so people laugh at Waldfogel even though he is essentially correct. I have found that it is better to quote Harriet Beecher Stowe making much the same observation 170 years ago: “There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got.”
I asked Joel Waldfogel, Mr Scroogenomics himself, whether the pandemic has changed his views of Christmas gifts.
“Some things are really different about this Covid year,” he told me. Some people have lost their jobs, while others have money flowing in and no way to spend it. “Maybe even bad gifts are a useful, relatively high return investment this year.”
With other avenues of celebration blocked, I suspect many people have poured even more money and effort into gifts this year. I know I have, against my better judgment. Yet my scepticism of gifts remains.
In some cases the logical gift from lucky to unlucky would be the gift of cash, but that is always a sensitive matter. Waldfogel has long advocated charitable donations, and this year the case for such “gifts” is stronger: rather than giving the customary cricket knick-knack, why not donate on behalf of the cricket-lover to a sports charity?
Traditionally, Christmas wasn’t about giving shop-bought gifts — it was a festival of public feasting, wassailing and revelry that the more puritanical Christians were keen to discourage. When Clement Clarke Moore penned the line, “’Twas the night before Christmas”, in 1822, he was part of a movement to make Christmas less about drunken street gangs and more of a quiet, domestic affair. Not a creature stirring, and all that. And when Christmas is a stay-at-home festival, gifts of food and drink to raucous wassailers are replaced by gifts of toys, books and bath salts for family members.
This year Clement Clarke Moore has finally got his wish. We are all at home. The pandemic has operated like a neutron bomb, destroying the hugs and the feasting and carol services and the visiting of elderly relatives, while allowing the flow of gift-wrapped plastic to continue unabated.
What a shame that things aren’t the other way around. Imagine an alternate universe in which Christmas carols and pantomimes and parties and feasts with family and friends were all possible, but because of a strange virus that lived on wrapping paper, it was unsafe, illegal and deeply antisocial to offer Christmas gifts.
Would you prefer that imagined Christmas to the one we have in 2020, where the gifts are easily arranged but many of the secular and religious traditions are reckless, illegal, or both?
To ask the question is to answer it. Whether the true spirit of Christmas lies in the nativity crib or the wassailing bowl — or in the numinous, magical combination of both — it could survive with fewer poorly chosen gifts.
Above all I hope that the sheer difficulty of celebrating with family and friends will make us more mindful about how we do it. And who knows? Maybe next year we will have learned a lesson about what is truly valuable in this strange winter festival.
After Christmas, epiphany.
Tim Harford’s latest book is ‘How to Make the World Add Up’; in the US, it will be published as ‘The Data Detective’ by Riverhead Books in February