A Case Against Gift Giving

Can we finally call our own bluff on our collective insistence that the true meaning of the holidays lies in good will towards Men instead of piles of stuff wrapped in shiny paper?

A gift card marked "Not This Year", wrapped with a bow.

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A recent television commercial from Nordstrom features Dean Martin singing “Go Go Go Go” while excited shoppers dash-dance through the department store. “Let’s Go Gifting!” a graphic insists over footage of silvery presents being stacked to the heavens.

If Nordstrom represents the old guard of retail, the new face of the industry, Amazon, is moving forward in a similar vein. The online giant released a commercial this year in which its signature cardboard packages — likely to be holiday presents — are characters themselves, resurrecting The Jacksons’ 1981 song “Can You Feel It” to the delight of construction workers, children, and even Amazon’s own warehouse staff. “It,” in this scenario, is presumably some incarnation of holiday spirit, restored to all by the crooning of the comforting boxes.

These messages comprise a wintry backdrop in our culture that presents are inevitable and necessary for a normal December. It’s hardly a new phenomenon; we’ve been gifting for so long that it might be difficult to imagine a holiday season without it. But what if we stopped exchanging presents?

Okay, not entirely: we can still give presents to children. I’m not a jerk.

But the guilt-driven custom of holiday shopping has got to go. Aside from kids, many people don’t seem to enjoy receiving presents on the holidays anyways — or, at least, enough to justify our panic-induced shopping sprees the week before our ritualistic offerings at the fir shrine.

Anxiety over receiving gifts, which is linked to social anxiety, is more widespread than you might think. When I talked to friends and acquaintances, almost everyone expressed having some discomfort with opening presents in front of a crowd. The uncertainty, expectations, and inevitable feigned enthusiasm make the whole formality unbearable for, I suspect, a silent majority of receivers. A study in Psychological Science found that most people give gifts with the receiver’s immediate reaction in mind rather than their long-term satisfaction. In spite of our actual needs and wants, we end up with a flashy novelty that loses appeal quickly (see: selfie sticks and hands-free phone mounts).

“You get what you get, so don’t throw a fit,” as they say. What could a few impractical gifts hurt? In the bigger picture of the economy, it could actually inflate entire industries.

In his 2009 book Scroogenomics, economist Joel Waldfogel argues that holiday gift-giving is literal waste. Waldfogel looks at the annual December spike in retail sales (typically cheered by news stories each year), and asks about the cost of a gift versus the value of that gift to the receiver. For instance, if your aunt buys you Neiman Marcus Prosecco Bubble Bath for $38 but that product is only worth $20 to you, then there is a deadweight value loss of $18 (or 47.3 percent). He found that American gift giving destroys at least 13 percent of value. Given last year’s $691.9 billion spent on holiday retail, Waldfogel’s theory would predict that almost $90 billion in value was lost. This money doesn’t just disappear into thin air, but he maintains that the tradition of gift giving undermines an economic system’s ability to distribute products efficiently and create value.

But what if we do get cash for Christmas? Or, the most-requested gifts of late, gift cards? This not only confirms that gift giving in the 21st century amounts to passing currency back and forth, but it’s also wasteful. Just about every quality of the convenient and impersonal gift card exists to maximize profits for the respective company. About one billion dollars in gift card money goes unspent each year. Customers who use their cards in a store are more likely to spend their own money as well (about 20 percent more than the gift card amount), and if they don’t use the full amount on the card they’ll likely return. People are also two-and-a-half times more likely to pay full price with a gift card. The last pitfall is unique to the modern era: a gift card won’t work if the store goes under! Some unlucky schmucks are holding gift cards for Toys ’R’ Us right now that may as well be bookmarks.

“But this is all over-analytical conjecture,” you say. “You’re missing the true meaning of trading stuff,” or, getting to the heart of the matter, “What else are we supposed to do?”

The rampant materialism of the winter holidays does seem pretty entrenched, and that’s because it is. “Just as every generation imagines that it invented sex, every generation imagines that it invented the vulgar commercialization of Christmas,” Waldfogel writes in Scroogenomics. After looking at the holiday spending statistics of the last 100 years, he found that (with the exception of the Great Depression) numbers have remained comparable, and, in fact, we used to spend a larger portion of our smaller economy on the holidays.

That doesn’t mean we’re tethered to this inefficient and antiquated tradition forever, though. The elimination of adult-on-adult gift exchanging might take some time, but it could happen.

We could finally call our own bluff on our collective insistence that the true meaning of the holidays lies in good will towards Men instead of piles of stuff wrapped in shiny paper. Remember? The central lesson behind all of your favorite holiday lore?

As the anti-materialistic story of the Grinch has been rebooted for the big screen yet again, one must wonder whether the slew of new merchandise (like finger puppets, mugs, and those blessed plush toys) is what Dr. Seuss had in mind. Unlike the worlds of Amazon and Nordstrom advertisements, Whoville exists to meaningfully reflect our own best (and worst) instincts. When they discover their tricycles, popcorn, and plums are gone, the Whos still celebrate Christmas enthusiastically. Without presents, would we still be singing “Fahoo fores, dahoo dores”? There’s only one way to find out.

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  1. Great article on the annual pressures of basically forced gift giving, largely based on perceptions of perception. Life in the U.S. is enough of a pressure cooker all year long as it is. The last thing most of us need (other than the religious aspect of Christmas) IS Christmas itself otherwise, for all of the above reasons.

    Most of us are doing our best just not to get sick and/or stay well in the Fall/Winter as it is. The Holidays (really starting with the overkill of Halloween) are pretty well played out by Thanksgiving in all honesty. On top of that, it’s every year. Every time you turn around it’s “that time” yet again. It was fun as a kid. Now, not so much. No thank you.

    Thanks for the link on the social anxiety regarding it too. Fortunately I’m a good actor that knows how not to offend when given a gift I may not care for (say at work). This is why I only give gifts to those I know well, and what they like. Sometimes my personalized Christmas cards are gifts in themselves. A Coke and a smile, minus the Coke.


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