I was recently accused of being a Scrooge because of my opinion that Christmas is really just a whole lot of work, and because exchanging presents is a botched system. What follows is my defense.
First, if it were up to me I wouldn’t Celebrate Christmas on Christmas. Christmas the day doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t attend any special church service, and I’m pretty darn sure we didn’t pinpoint the exact day of Jesus’s birth. Normally I fly home to Nashville, but many of my friends typically go somewhere else so I can’t maximize the utility of my flight cost by seeing them on the same trip. My hometown football and basketball teams rarely play at home on the same week, and I would probably pick different games to attend anyway. My favorite restaurants and coffee shops are closed half the time I’m home and on shortened hours the other half. Catching up on my shopping is a fool’s errand because everyone else is shopping, or else those stores are closed too.
It gets better! Most of my office goes home the week of Christmas, meaning this is the best time of the year to catch up on work. Yet instead of staying in my deserted office, I’m going to one of the few places with a higher concentration of people than usual — and better yet, the people most likely to try and convince me not to work because it’s Christmas. I have a flexible leave policy and I can telecommute, so I can really take a vacation almost anytime — but instead I choose the week with the most expensive flights. In summary, I am all about finding a sensible week to come home and spend time with my family, but I’m paying a well-above-average price to come home at the least efficient time for me simply because it’s Christmas.
As I said earlier, I am further a Scrooge because I don’t appreciate gift exchanges. This is because it’s a totally garbage system of value creation. We exchange gifts (a) to make ourselves feel good about giving and (b) to make others feel good about receiving. Assuming I spend the same amount of time and money buying gifts for others as I could spend buying my own gifts, it’s not hard to see what leads economists to argue that Christmas is a deadweight loss.
I do not feel good about giving in the following situations: I have no idea what the recepient wants; I am merely choosing off a detailed list and demonstrate no originality; I give a gift that doesn’t meet a minimum threshhold of usefulness or thoughtfulness (and the threshhold increases the more money I spend).
I do not feel good about receiving in the following situations: the gift has little emotional value and is also unusable; the gift is both unusable and unreturnable; the gift is unusable and returnable but I have to request the receipt; the gift is close but not exactly what I want so I neither return nor use it; the gift costs way more than something else I wanted but is way less useful.
I’ve tried to minimize the emotional damage caused by gift exchanges by requesting detailed lists from my family, and by submitting links to the exact items I want along with my list. But in spite of the hazards of deviating from the list, people often feel guilty about not coming up with something original so they deviate anyway, dramatically increasing the risk of a botched exchange! “But isn’t it the thought that counts?” You ask. My answer is yes if you guess right — meaning mostly no.
But if we have to give gifts for cultural reasons, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that the best gifts are gift cards. Caleb links to reasons gift cards suck compared to cash, but I disagree. If you give me cash, I’m going to feel compelled to buy something I need (or save or invest) rather than buy something I want. Moreover, an equal exchange of cash is a loss in transaction costs with virtually no gain in emotional value. So gift cards satisfy the two conditions of exchange because they give the recepient a strong opportunity to be satisfied courtesy of the giver. A second best option is food or beverages, because even if the recep atient doesn’t like it, they’ll probably have guests or other friends who will — and in any case, the guilt of not using the gift expires with the food’s shelf life.
Still think I’m just being a Scrooge? Well, Brian McCann links to a defense of Scrooge here. So yeah.