Well, it’s the most wonderful time of the year again, which mostly means an extra long list of things to do and purchase, plus behavior and expectations to manage. And that’s just my own. It is a peculiar thing we do to ourselves during the holiday season: rearrange our lives to accommodate tinsel, stockings, parties and endless Amazon shipments, plus the more sentimental rituals that connote comfort, joy and all that jazz.
After the fact, it is like looking into a cozy snowglobe, evoking warm feelings of rituals nurtured. Somehow we delude ourselves into thinking we’ve spent the entire month of December sipping cocoa and reading Christmas stories. In the heat of the moment, though, the whole process feels a bit like a transaction. Parents of adult children (yeah, I get it) demand gift request lists, while those of us with younger children are given infinite suggestions from our offspring as to how to spread yuletide cheer with the latest in gadgetry, gear or fashion. It becomes an intergenerational matrix of giving, receiving and wondering just why and how this came to be.
It begins, I think, with true goodwill and an attachment – religious or otherwise – to tradition, celebration and being kind to those we love. It has been known to spin out of control – Black Friday et al. – but the basic notion of seasonal good cheer is a powerful force that provokes all sorts of interesting, December-specific behaviors.
The lessons Santa teaches combine with that of human and economic nature and children understand that about all the currency they have to offer is good behavior and sweetness. Any demonstration otherwise places the Christmas morning payoff at risk – a fact that feels a little sinister to wield, but I do so freely nonetheless. The market is made on a series of behavioral, emotional and actual financial transactions between gift givers and recipients. What it has to do with the religious underpinnings that kick the whole thing off, I don’t know. But despite all the rigmarole, there is something more at play than just handing off and tearing open presents.
Perhaps the eminent economists surveyed by the University of Chicago had it right when they made their astute if sterile observations about gift-giving. The process, respondents found more often than those who didn’t, is not just about efficiency. It’s about something much, much more. “Gifts serve many functions, such as signaling regard or demonstrating social ties with the recipient,” commented Janet Currie, a Princeton economist, as justification for dismissing the notion that cash is the most efficient holiday gift. In a blog in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson seized on the deep eloquence of Currie and her colleagues’ statements, and imagined a series of Christmas cards written by economists. They might have just the right mix of reality and seasonal mist.
Barring that, though, these insights offer comfort for those who might start to feel cynical about the seasonal transactions. “Presents serve multiple interpersonal purposes. Revealed preference indicates that income transfer is not the primary one,” soothes David Autor of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
That helps a lot, as does Yale economist Joseph Altonji’s reminder that “holiday gift exchanges are about interpersonal relationships.”
Nothing like that and a pile of corrugated cardboard to remind us of what the holidays really mean. But somehow the preparation, the meals, the time spent with family and friends, and the gift-giving and receiving – combine to create the memories and rituals that we build on each year. It is an energy and resource investment that pays dividends in all those interpersonal relationships of value in our lives. Efficient or not.
Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.