Getting the Most Out of Christmas

Christmas morning ranks high among most people’s golden childhood memories, the tangible foundation for later abstractions like delight or gratitude. You might be in a college dorm or nursing home, you might not remember yesterday’s lunch or tomorrow’s appointments, but you probably recall opening that first gift from Santa.

So here’s a question: how many second gifts do you remember from your childhood Christmases? How many third or fourth gifts?

Amy Dacyczyn, author of “The Tightwad Gazette,” made an interesting observation about children on Christmas morning: the first present is magical, she said, but the fourth or fifth means far less, and by distracting the child, diminishes the magic of the first present. Moreover, by the time the child receives the fifth present, they are anticipating the sixth, and will feel disappointed when it doesn’t arrive.

Photo: Maxim Malevich/Fotolia

We do this even as adults; find out you’re getting a Christmas bonus and you might feel a moment of triumph. Find out you’re getting a second bonus, and you’ll be pleased … but not as pleased as before. Just like the gifts on Christmas morning, two surprises are not twice as pleasurable as one.

The reason seems to be that we adjust our expectations according to recent events, so that an unexpected gift or loss changes everything briefly and then loses its effect as we get used to the new normal. Even the most life-changing events, like winning the lottery or enduring a car crash, have little effect on long-term happiness – as we know from a 1974 study of people who had experienced just those things.  Spending has increased for four decades in the USA and Europe alike, so we all have more toys, yet surveys say we are no happier.

Yet we spend more almost every Christmas, and it’s not difficult to see why. Most parents give their children the best, or feel pressured to keep up with other parents, or – let’s be honest – want to make up for not spending enough time during the year. The easy answer – buy more things – screams at us from all around, its messages pasted onto walls and along roads, interrupting your television or internet, blaring from loudspeakers in the distance. Avoiding such messages increasingly means withdrawing from mainstream culture.   

Thus, what was once a single holy day has metastasized into a shopping season, a time to eat too much, drink too much and spend too much, while getting less and less pleasure from the same activities. Mainstream culture has even placed a sense of moral obligation on spending, as the media track sales figures like telethon hosts.

In an article in Slate magazine, however, economist Joel Waldfogel demolished the idea that Christmas spending is good for the economy. Let’s say, he said, that you describe the cost of a gift as the store value plus the pleasure of receiving it as a gift.  If your granny gives you a 50-dollar Christmas sweater that you love and would have bought for yourself anyway, you receive more value from it as a gift. But most of us don’t love all our Christmas gifts and wouldn’t have bought them for ourselves – as evidenced by the fact that we didn’t. They have less value to us than what we really wanted, so gift-givers are spending more money to get less – an imposed inefficiency on the economy.

Waldfogel doesn’t even include the potential 20 percent or so extra cost of buying on credit during the holidays, or the cost of storing and maintaining your gift, or the cost of electricity or buying batteries. He doesn’t include the ecological cost of creating more junk when you throw the gift away eventually, or the money given to business whose policies you might not agree with, or any of the other ripples you create in the world with each purchase.  

What about other rituals, you ask – the decorations, the parties, and the flood of annual songs? Can’t we enjoy those things? Of course – if you genuinely enjoy them. You are not, however, obliged to load up on the same plastic decorations that adorn every shop window or cubicle this month, or sing the same five songs all the loudspeakers repeat, or watch a television program you’ve seen many times before.  

If this sounds too Scrooge-like in attitude, remember that Scrooge opposed the spirit of Christmas, and took no pleasure in seeing family and friends celebrate together. I’m saying the exact opposite; I’d like to see a lot of stressed and increasingly broke people enjoy the holidays again. Those nostalgic images of the Christmases past, from Charles Dickens to Norman Rockwell, would never have portrayed people staring at glowing screens, or listening to headphones, or of waiting in line at the cash machine, even had such things existed.

Realistically, of course, some of us have office jobs to go to, co-workers who expect presents, relatives to visit, and children already receiving stacks of gifts from elsewhere, and we shouldn’t try to change everyone else. None of us can completely hold back the surrounding culture, but we can make many small changes; we can limit television over the holidays, play games with children, read to each other by candlelight on Christmas Eve, and fill our time with the things people used to do before consumption became many people’s full-time job.

Here in the Irish countryside, where we are less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, Christmas time brings eighteen-hour nights and howling winds, but most people still needed to feed the animals and do all the regular chores. Traditionally, according to our older neighbours, people bought a goose for dinner, whose fat would polish their boots and harnesses for the next year. Many people brought holly, ivy and rosemary into the house from the surrounding countryside, and when they decorated a tree, it was often a few days before. Neighbours would bring home-made gifts to each other’s houses, and sing songs that might be unique to each region, passed down through the generations.  The holiday lasted only a brief moment and disappeared, and that made it precious.


“Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?” By Brickman, Philip; Coates, Dan; Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 36(8), Aug 1978, 917-927.

The Complete Tightwad Gazette, by Amy Dacyczyn, 1998

“You Shouldn’t Have: The Economic Argument for Never Giving Another Gift,” Joel Waldfogel, Slate magazine, December 2009

Published on Dec 18, 2013

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