The Declining Utility of Christmas

“Bah Humbug you Grinch!”

This is the response I get around the holidays whenever I have a few drinks and suddenly feel confident enough to espouse how ridiculously weird and inefficient Christmas presents are (and Birthday presents too for that matter).  Hey, I get the whole Christmas spirit thing.  People have been celebrating around the time of the winter solstice since time has been recorded.  I love hanging out with friends and family and getting a break from the normal grind routine.  I thoroughly enjoy eating the cooking and baking of people who are much better at those activities than I am!  I don’t even really mind the pomp and circumstance of decorations and the endless Christmas songs, even though I could take or leave them.  I don’t consider myself a Grinch that hates celebration, I just think the idea of all of us pouring our hard-earned money into material goods for each other that we are not certain anyone either wants or needs is ridiculous!

You’re a Mean One…

Perhaps the cultural reference that best illustrates my point is a recent Big Bang Theory episode that I watched where Sheldon is confused and frustrated with the whole notion of Christmas gift giving.  In order to avoid any weird feelings one way or another he seeks to find a gift that will be roughly equivalent to the one he receives from Penny (the weird mental dance that we all do when giving gifts), but this presents several problems stemming from the fact he is not sure what Penny will get him.  In order to be sure that he gets the ideal present Sheldon buys three gift baskets of varying sizes so that he is prepared no matter Penny gets him.  Of course hilarity ensues, but the fact that Sheldon has to go through so much time and effort in order to find an acceptable logical solution to this completely man-made problem is insane!

Cuddly as a Cactus…

Christmas MoneyI love my family and friends very much, and because of this I empathize with the frustration they must feel when trying to pick out gifts for me.  I’m a pretty simple guy, and the stuff that I need I buy for myself, and what I REALLY want I also purchase for myself.  After that, there isn’t much time to use or want anything else!  Consequently I’m pretty certain I’m hard to buy for (I don’t like collecting things, I’m not into clothes, etc).  This resulted in me getting a bevy of presents that I don’t really like this year (as every year).  It’s nothing personal, but I don’t wear scarves, I already have a wallet that works just fine thank you, and those basketball shorts are really nice… that’s why I bought them three months ago.

Charming as an Eel…

Not only is this a minor irritant, in economic terms it’s a gross misuse of money!  The only person that could truly know how I would get the maximum amount of enjoyment out of the money spend on me, is Moi!  So if we set our standard at that level, many of the gifts I received were in the 20-30% utility range, and even very good ones only providing me with 70-80% as much enjoyment as if I had simply spent the money myself.  Therefore, this represents a huge loss in the overall enjoyment factor that anyone received as a result of the gift giving exchange.  I’m sure I spend much time and money tracking down gifts that fell into the 30-70% range for others, and that makes me very sad.  If I’m going to hand over my earned money to corporations (instead of using it to buy shares of those corporations), I want to make sure that someone gets the maximum enjoyment out of it.

Stink, Stank, Stunk…

What’s wrong with great cooking and conversation being used to celebrate the Holidays?  Isn’t that enough?  Why do we have to go through this elaborate ceremonial dance in which everyone loses out in the long term, and which in an abstract sense just encourages the obsession with materialism that we have fallen victim to in the Western World?  Wouldn’t the easiest and most efficient solution simply be to all keep our money and do away with the weird tradition for everyone except the children, which is who Christmas is really for anyway?

Written by Teacher Man

TM writes about all things personal finance over at My University Money and Young and Thrifty. He intends to continue his quest for lifelong learning and hopefully help others along the way.

12 Responses to The Declining Utility of Christmas

  1. Your last paragraph is what it is all about. Just getting together and enjoying one another’s company. For a few years now, as we are older and wiser (34) we have been donating to local charities instead of getting gifts for one side of our family. The children still get a gift but all the adults do not. We donate $50 for each adult as that is the amount we budgeted for in our Christmas savings. We asked the other side of the family to to not buy for us and donate the value of what they would have given as a gift. It feels good and is way less about the material things now. Maybe that is why I am enjoying Christmas again.

  2. Love the article…..you’ve hit the nail on the head. We all need to get back to what’s really important to our well-being and not focusing so much on instant gratification.

    Keep writing…..and I’ll keep reading.

  3. This captures completely my feelings on Christmas. The most enjoyable part of the season is catching up with friends, family. Good times & memories. I hate the pressure of having to find ‘perfect’ gifts for people that don’t need anything. Even worse, the thought of people who don’t have the $ to spend, buying things they can’t afford just to give a gift. Sad that society looks upon these opinions as somehow scrooge like. Great article.

  4. My husband and I have actually decided to separate any gift giving from the celebration of Christmas – entirely. We allowed some gifts this year, given by others, but next year even those will be set aside until the new year. Christmas is, first and foremost, a religious holy day. Second, it’s a time for fellowship and family.

    The real wake up call came for us when a dear family member almost didn’t come into town to visit this Christmas because financial difficulties meant “I don’t have very nice gifts for the kids”.

    How many of us actually *need* anything that we receive for Christmas, anyway? How ridiculous is it when two people buy each other the exact same item – and neither of them need it?

  5. Wow – the mind boogles at the underlying, yet blatant, meaning of what has been written here. By everyone. Surely it can’t be a generational thing? Maybe it’s a city-dweller thing? Perhaps a new cultural thing? Or maybe it is simply a manifestation of a truly dazzling lack of both awareness and a sense of irony.

    “The Declining Utility of Christmas”, you say. Utility …utility. Does anyone else get a bit of a queasy feeling over someone looking at Christmas, and the giving of tokens, as some sort of service? Something he feels is “inefficient”? I wonder if he, and the other posters, truly know or understand what Christmas is supposed to be and why gifts may be given? And I am not referring to Christmas as a Christian event, but as a celebration far preceding the advent of Christianity.

    It is a time of celebration, of harvest, of solstice, of survival, of new beginnings, of family and friends. Gifts are gestures. They are symbols to share the celebration. They represent one’s appreciation for another. A gift shows you were thinking of the other, that you considered them and what they might like or appreciate or, yes, maybe even need.

    Giving a gift is an exchange of tokens of esteem, not a competition. The value of one’s gifts in comparison to another’s is most certainly not the point. Remember – “it’s the thought that counts”? Well, it is. This is to says, no matter how much you spent, if you didn’t try, it doesn’t count. For example – if you give someone $1000 because you are too lazy to bother to think of, and find, a gift – it is nice (of course) but has not the same significance as it would if you gave $1000 to someone because s/he really needed it.

    Case in point IS the Big Bang Theory episode mentioned (Season 2, episode 11, “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis”). Unfortunately, the actual message of that episode does not, in any way, support the argument. Sheldon did, indeed, purchase a number of gift baskets (fyi – it was many more than 3). However, he did not go through “so much time and effort”. In fact, quite the opposite. In the first place, he purchased ready-made gift baskets – no thought or consideration the actual recipient (other than an assumption that a female must like bath things). He purchased several different sizes so he would be able to financially match her gift when it came. He was not giving her a gift as a token of anything other than his own selfishness and not wanting to feel indebted to her.
    Now comes the key to the episode which, apparently, was missed. Penny gives Sheldon a worthless, used linen napkin. WTF? Ah, but used, and signed, by Leonard Nimoy. Sheldon (for those who follow this show) is understandably overwhelmed. And recognises his many gift baskets are not enough. Enough what? Not monetary value, my dear – esteem value. Those tokens are not enough to show his appreciation for Penny, her thoughtfulness, her realising what would mean so much to him, her effort to get it and keep it and give it to him. And what did Sheldon come up with to give Penny in return? The one thing that he would never (until then) voluntarily do, a thing that would mean something to Penny, a thing of great significance. He ’simply’ gave her a hug. (Again, it helps to be a follower of these characters to understand the significance.)

    And THAT, folks, is what gift-giving is about. Gestures, tokens, freely given, significant to the other, showing thought, awareness and caring.

    What’s that? I hear you say you’d rather get whatever you want, whenever you want it? Well guess what – that is part of showing love and consideration too. You know people want to give you something. And you know you frustrate them. So wait, sometimes. Hold off on some purchases. Suggest some things to family, things that you do want and need – and let them buy it for you. A DVD, those basketball shorts. And, likewise, if you can’t think of things for them, ask. Ask if there is something they would like but wouldn’t buy for themselves? Or something they need that they’d let you get for them?

    Bottom line – what do you do for others? The cooking and baking and parties you so enjoy ARE a form of gift to you. What do you give to them? I am sure they like to cook and bake and throw parties and sharing this with friends. So, what do you like to do that you could share? Don’t just take. Think of something you can do for them to share the season. Keep your eyes open, be observant. Show your awareness of them and their lives.

    If, in fact, you show appreciation for your family and friends all year round, doing little things (or big things), then I agree – an annual (or biannual) gift opportunity may seem extraneous. But have the consideration to allow others their custom and pleasure. I like giving gifts to my friends and family. I spend a fair bit of effort – because I’m thinking about them. We’re not very expressive otherwise and it is a way for us to show that we do care and do think about the other person. I look forward to seeing their pleasure when I surprise them with something they hadn’t expected, but is so “them”.

    If gifts are a chore in your circles, then I submit, you are doing something wrong. And you really need to revisit the message of the Grinch:

    “Maybe Christmas”, he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
    Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more!”

  6. So brilliantly said, Den. I have to admit that I too, was about to post about how Christmas has become far too commercialized, but you make an excellent point. While in my own circle we have stopped the marketing of Christmas by buying each other things we don’t want or need, we do take the time to each do something for each other, whether it’s babysitting or chauffering someone around for a day when they don’t drive. That is our way of giving, and we each make a special effort to do something great for each other during the holidays. Thank you for putting a new spin on the whole argument and even showing partial Grinches like myself that not emptying your wallet shouldn’t always mean a complete boycott of the holiday.

  7. We’ve found that it was getting costly to ship bulky presents to other provinces where our family is scattered across Canada. So lately we’ve been buying theater tickets and/or sending gift cards to dinner and a movie. It eliminates expensive mailing of (possibly) unwanted gifts, and family members instead enjoy an evening out at a restaurant, play, or concert “sponsored” by us.

    It’s way more affordable than the post office (Sorry, Canada Post) and we like to think that we aren’t buying a (sometimes) random gift but rather buying a memorable occasion.

  8. It took a flood in my brother-in-law’s basement, but we finally got my husband’s siblings to agree to only giving gifts to the kids this year. It made my whole December perfect! The burden of coming up with good ideas (even if homemade items or gifts of experiences) for 5 adults who frankly don’t need “things” was way out of proportion to the enjoyment of watching them receive them. And Christmas came, it came just the same. Only better!

    I had much more fun this year giving homemade fudge (to those who like it) and brittle (to those who like it) this year than I’ve had in years when we were supposed to be clever enough to find the perfect gift for someone we don’t even know very well.

    Happy New Year!

  9. I love that Big Bang episode… Hilarious. That said, I think Christmas is more about the thought than the items You receive. I like connecting with my family and spend solid dedicated time with them that you don’t get the rest of the year.

  10. I think my dad had the brilliant idea this year. We agreed to stocking stuffers for everyone, but all the siblings agreed to give gifts to the parents (they did raise us after all).

    Dad decided that it would be a great idea to have a big game of soccer…outside…200 KM north of Winnipeg…twice… It was cold, but its something I’ll going to remember until the end of time. More so then any gift I received this year. It brought the family together as well as the dogs(the puppy even made a save!) and everyone had fun!

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