Tag Archives: Christmas

Should you really buy a Christmas gift for your second cousin twice removed?

When it comes to gift giving, it’s the thought that counts, right?

Maybe, maybe not.

Don’t get me wrong: I really love giving gifts around the holidays and at other times (usually birthdays), and I naturally love receiving them as well. At least certain gifts.

When a gift is something that someone really wants or needs — or if you have a true burst of inspiration, it’s a wonderful, exciting feeling for the giver and the recipient. It’s not about how much money you spend, it truly is the thought that counts. Usually these are gifts for people we know very well…our immediate families, significant others, and an inner circle of friends. I have gotten some really great gifts over the years, usually from people who know me very well and often from those who have asked what I wanted to get.

But then there are the gifts we give to people who don’t really meet that criteria. You buy a token gift for the mail carrier, another token gift for your second cousin twice removed, and a third token gift just to prevent an unanticipated gift-giving emergency faux pas. It’s often considered to be more polite to buy a bad gift than no gift at all. I’ve certainly done it many times, so I’m just as guilty as anyone.

Even for the people we know best, we sometimes buy filler gifts. In addition to the nice, thoughtful gifts you have bought, you buy more little token gifts as stocking stuffers. Sometimes these are cute and good for a brief laugh or a small indulgence like candy. Sometimes there are some legitimate big-ticket gifts that just happen to be small enough to fit inside of a stocking. Jewelry comes to mind. But, most of the time it’s just filler. (Even the phrase stocking stuffers literally says that the gifts are purchased for the sole purpose of taking up space.)

We all get things that we don’t particularly like, and we all give things that we don’t really have high hopes for the recipient liking because we don’t really know most of them very well. But we do it just to be polite because, well, it’s the thought that counts. We feel guilty or awkward if we overlook someone, especially if we are going to see them in person, and advertisers prey on this.

It’s actually a substantial economic problem, and University of Pennsylvania economist Joel Waldfogel has been on a mission to help us fix it. His book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, explains that holiday gift-giving is actually quite wasteful.

What’s distinctive about all of this [holiday] spending is that, except for the prearranged gifts for teenagers, the choices are not made by the ultimate consumers. For the rest of the year, the people who will ultimately use the stuff choose what they buy. As a result, buyers normally choose things they correctly expect to enjoy using. But not at Christmas. As a result, the massive holiday spending has the potential to do a terrible job matching products with users. Throughout the year, we shop meticulously for ourselves, looking at scores of items before choosing those that warrant spending our own money. The process at Christmas, by contrast, has givers shooting in the dark about what you like, recalling the way the imaginary red tornado distributes gifts.

Joel Waldfogel, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays

Every year, the media talks about the importance of the holiday shopping season as an indicator of the nation’s economic health. The logic goes that more consumer spending is a cause for optimism. But do they ever stop and ask if consumers are spending their money wisely? Do they stop and ask how much credit card debt they are in come January? According to Waldfogel, Americans waste about $85 billion each winter on gifts that people don’t even want.

Unfortunately, when people cut back on holiday spending in tougher economic times, they might still buy just as many gifts for just as many people but just buy less expensive or token gifts (again, just due to social pressures).

It’s not just a matter of money, it’s also a matter of time. Shopping is time-consuming, and homemade gifts are even more so. Aside from the financial drain, so many people feel overstressed and overcommitted during the holidays. They have too many people to shop for, and they often wander about aimlessly in search of inspiration they will probably not find…so they settle for just giving something in order to be expedient. Really, if it’s the thought that counts, how much thought was involved in buying a candle for ten different people on your list? These social pressures actually suck the joy out of gift giving and even gift making.

As a gift recipient, I’d prefer that the same amount of money be spent on fewer, bigger-ticket gifts — or even on necessities for people who are less fortunate than I am. I’d rather not feel obligated to give a bad gift to someone I don’t know that well and give better gifts to the people I do know well.

Wouldn’t you? So let’s put an end to the social pressures of obligatory filler gifts. Doesn’t your mail carrier have enough returns to deal with as it is?

Why I can’t even be a C-E Christian

I’m not particularly religious. But a lot of people who aren’t particularly religious still trot themselves into church on Christmas and Easter…which happens to be today. People who only go to church on Christmas and Easter are dubbed “C-E Christians.”

I remember when I was a kid that I loved Easter. I loved my Easter basket. I REALLY loved rabbits like the Easter Bunny and the Cadbury Bunny…to the point where I eventually had a couple as pets. I never understood what all of that had to do with the stuff they taught me at church regarding Easter, but hey it was fun and there was candy.

Back then I never gave a lot of thought to it all. As I got older I found out that the Easter Bunny wasn’t real…it was kind of like finding out Santa Claus isn’t real. A rabbit could never deliver baskets to all the Christian children in the world in one night. Besides, how would he even get into the house?

And yet, even as I got older, I had no trouble believing an equally implausible story about how a man could be executed by the most cruel and torturous method ever invented on Friday and then walk out of his tomb (rolling a stone away) on Sunday morning. After all, all of the adults I knew claimed to believe it. It was not just a miracle but it was THE miracle that saved us from the eternal torment we deserved.

When I got to college, I learned some disturbing facts about the Jesus story. I had always heard that the Christians had placed the holiday of Easter at a particular time in order to supplant pagan fertility rituals usually celebrated around the same time..

But what I did not realize was that so many details of Jesus’s life — the virgin birth and the resurrection in particular — were unoriginal. The story of Jesus mirrors many stories that came hundreds of years before him…and it would make complete sense for someone interested in gaining a new convert in the pagan world to merely tack on these stories to the real life story of Jesus in order to make it more palatable for pagans.

During the period of the Roman Empire, history was simply not written the way we think of it today. There were no pure biographies…only legends and folklore that were intertwined with facts. It was even more true with religious texts. We can learn a lot about ancient history from these documents, but to suggest that they represent history in the same way that a biographer or historian would write history today ignores their context.

Imagine someone from the future picking up a copy of Major League and thinking of it as a documentary about baseball. It was a comedic farce and never intended to be an historical film…even though there really was a baseball team called the Cleveland Indians.

Resurrection in the ancient world was a symbol for the new fertility that came with each spring. It turns out the rabbit and the eggs are more closely aligned with the original meaning of Easter than the stories about Jesus are.

Indeed, these two stories of virgin birth and resurrection that comprise Christmas and Easter are the two most ridiculous stories in all of Christianity.

The last time I attended church, it was on Christmas Eve of 2005. I thought it was a nice tradition. It was my idea. However, once I got there, all I could feel was anger at the myths that these leaders were spreading and reinforcing as if they were historical facts. The same thing happens at Easter, and that is precisely why I cannot attend anymore.