Christmas Presents Are Bad, Actually

Forget to get someone a gift? Let me provide you with after-the-fact justification.
December 20, 2018, 6:07pm
Presents are bad!
Image by Peter Slattery/Photo by Getty Images/Niedring/Drentwett

We've officially entered the holiday season home-stretch: the strange time when people are sort-of at work, but not necessarily expected to do all that much. It's the magical grace period when you get to party and eat whatever you want and no one will say anything to object. Everyone has to be nice, or at least feels an incredible pressure to appear friendly and in good cheer.

All of which is great. But when Christmas is in less than a week, it's also a time people who celebrate it tend to panic. I certainly do. Having to wrack my brain for hints dropped seven months ago, about a desired Instapot or pair of earrings, and then running all over a large city to retrieve said objects, is a ritual I would give almost anything to avoid.


Unfortunately, we live in a society—I can't just opt out. If I didn't buy gifts and only received them, it would be perceived (rightfully!) as selfish and unfair. But my angst about the holiday season is not exactly unique, even among the people I'm close to: Right now, I am confident, there are an untold number of people out there feeling similar anxiety about the prospect of remembering and then obtaining something I mentioned I might like to own at some point in the distant past.

Which is why I have to make a (not new, but still somehow alien) proposal that will certainly be met with resistance despite being in the best interest of everyone: that we stop giving Christmas gifts.

My stance on this stems in part from my upbringing: my family isn't big on gifts, which means I was blissfully unaware of how stressful the end of the year could be until I became an adult and had to start buying random objects for my friends and co-workers and spouse. That's how I know it would be easy to end this cursed system—we would literally just stop, or behave like my parents and I did for 20 years. And before this starts to seem like a thinly-veiled excuse to air out grievances about my childhood, I will point out that actual economists have come up with legitimate reasons to rein in gifting: Joel Waldfogel, a professor at Wharton who's also the author of a book called Scroogenomics, goes so far as to call the entire holiday season "an orgy of wealth destruction."

In the book, he argues that when you buy something for yourself, you value it more than you would if someone else gave it to you. He's basically describing the difference between buying yourself a book or a video game that you will enjoy and possibly even hold onto as you grow up, and your grandmother getting you a Big Mouth Billy Bass or a sweater that's just going to end up at Goodwill. Instead of instilling everyone with the perceived need to buy something—anything—for people, we could just get rid of the obligation all together.


I humbly add to his argument the fact that gifts lose their emotional value when they're purchased under duress. If I see something in a store and think of my friend, I will buy it for them because I care about them, not because I have to. This also seems like a good place to mention that gifts can backfire. One time a then-new co-worker gave me a pair of (too big) men's socks for Secret Santa. Nice guy, but I've never stopped thinking about how little energy he put into making an impression on me.

Again, I'm not the first person to argue this—besides Waldfogel, various columnists or what some traditionalists might call Scrooge-like figures have made this case over the years. That's because it doesn't take an economist to figure this stuff out. "This is one [gift emoji] you won't want to return" someone at fantasy site DraftKings wrote me in a promotional email as I was writing this piece. The idea that gifts mainly provoke anxiety—not just from the giver, but also from the receiver, who is under pressure to pretend to enjoy something they probably don't actually like—is so well-known that even a public relations person (or bot or whatever) feels comfortable pointing it out. Why don't the rest of us?

Some might argue that I should simply donate to charity on another person's behalf if I don't want to participate in gift-gifting. That does not solve this problem. If someone buys you an Xbox, for instance, and you tell them that you gave the dollar-value of an Xbox away to a different person—or charitable group—on their behalf, they're probably going to feel a little annoyed. When it comes to exchanging gift-cards, anxiety comes when choosing a dollar-amount. If you get someone a card or donation worth way more than the one they get you, it's possible you'll feel irritated. The best-case-scenario is that you would trade one piece of alternative (but less-useful than cash) form of money for another of equal value. Again: Why do this?

As I recently began airing my opinion on Christmas gifts at our office, another co-worker asked me if I made a distinction between adults and kids when it comes to gift-getting, and the answer is, I guess? On the one hand, any time a kid eats, it's a gift. But I think that once a child is old enough to know that Santa Claus doesn't exist, they should also be disabused of the notion that they can expect a lifetime of free toys or gadgets. Christmas comes with a cost, and getting a handful of potentially useful presents is far from worth the amount of attendant bullshit that comes with them.

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