Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Christmas gift arms race

I do like Christmas. Maybe it’s the memories of childhood where a simple water pistol was enough to keep the anticipation high for weeks, and then become an object of desire (and destruction) for months.

But these days I feel like Christmas has become more of a burden then a blessing. My experience suggests that the last decade has seen the demise of delayed gratification. Maybe it’s just because as a child you are subject to parental decisions, and so you learn about delayed gratification. Then in adulthood, you realise there is little need for that anymore and are happy to splurge whenever it suits you. But maybe it is a more widespread cultural phenomenon.

The cause of this burden I feel is what I call the Christmas arms race.

For a start, people are all buying themselves whatever goodies take their fancy all through the year. Then at Christmas family members are meant to search for whatever desires of yours remain unquenched and quench them with a thoughtful gift.

Then, one friend or family member goes all out and buys everyone some great gifts, while you, stuck for ideas (possibly suffering decision paralysis), end up giving token gifts such as chocolates or other tasty Christmas treats. The next year you feel the benchmark was been set last year and needs to be exceeded this year. This goes on year in, year out.

The Christmas burden is not usually expressed in this way. Economists mostly believe there is a deadweight loss because of Christmas because gift givers cannot know as much as receivers their tastes. Tests have shown that gift recipients value gifts at only 80-90% of their costs to givers.

So how do we maintain Christmas cheer and eliminate the arms race. Here are my tips for giving gifts that allow you to escape the arms race, but maintain the pleasure of giving.

1. Delay buying some non-urgent things for yourself, and drop them into conversation with you family in early December. “Those whatamacallits look fantastic, I’ve always wanted one but still can’t bring myself to try them.”

2. Find a gift that shows that you know the persons personality well (eg. for nerds a new fangled gadget is good)

3. For any male over 5 year old, one of these is a great idea (I’ve never known anyone to not like them)

4. Go for something practical that the recipient is unlikely to be aware exists – expect a response such as “Wow, that’s such an amazing idea. Why haven’t I seen this before”

5. Don’t fret about recycling gifts. Apparently many people are quite happy to do this, while others hate it. Convince your friends and family to embrace regifting to take the pressure off you gift choices.
Any other tips would by greatly appreciated? Are there any gifts that always impress?

Merry Christmas everyone.  I'll probably take a break from the blog until the 5th January 2010.

UPDATE:  Looks like everyone wants to talk about the inefficiency of Christmas gift giving (see here).  I especially like the last paragraph:

the gifts you received from your family and friends yesterday will probably bring you more satisfaction per dollar spent than the tens of billions the government has spent on our behalf since last Christmas


  1. The Christmas Arms Race is something I have noticed in the last couple of years and for that reason we don't buy the adults any presents, just the children and they don't get much. In fact we technically don't celebrate Xmas because for me I don't know why anymore I would. I am not religious. It has not always been a great time for family, thought that is getting better. The consumerism side of it all does not appeal to me. Also, people are not very nice at Xmas time. They seem to have no patience, are very self centred and would push you over at the shop just to get the latest gadget.

    My Dad used to do something on Xmas day that I really liked as a child. 3 rules. 1. You can't open presents until everyone is awake. 2. You can't wake anyone up on purpose. 3. You must find a present under the tree for someone else and give a gift before you start opening yours.

  2. Merry Christmas Morgan.

    I like these rules. I think that's how we'll have our family Christmases from now on.

    Funny that you say people aren't very nice at Christmas. I find people can be very nice. But maybe it's the holiday that makes people nice, and the expectations/traditions and gifts that make people nasty.

    Take care. Cam