Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Are Christmas gifts just a horrible waste of money?

Lipstick painting of unwanted gifts

December is almost upon us and Christmas is less than a month away. Already the malls are heaving with hollow-eyed wrecks ticking off mental lists of people on their Christmas gift lists (some of them fantasising, no doubt, about bombing a place that approximates Dante’s fourth circle of hell). Ernst & Young is predicting a cheerful festive season for retailers as South Africans, already up to their eyeballs in debt, happily wade further into the mire as they splash out on electronic gadgets, clothing and white goods.

Globally, billions will be spent on Christmas gifts this year, a significant boost to economies everywhere (interestingly, the Irish are the highest spenders in Europe). If we didn’t have Christmas, we’d have to invent it.

Here’s the trouble with gifts, especially gifts of the sort that are advertised in the Clicks catalogue (a publication with which I am familiar). The difference between what is spent on purchasing them, and the value they are assigned by the recipient, can be vast. I once read in The Economist of a study into the loss represented by the yawning chasm between the amount paid for, say, a foot spa, and the value it represents at the bottom of somebody’s cupboard or in your local branch of Cash Converters. Horror stories about awful Christmas presents are as much part of our traditions as beach sand scrunching on the floor and leftover turkey in the fridge.

Certain categories of things exist only in order to be given as gifts. They have no intrinsic value; they’re not practical or useful or even beautiful. This is especially true in the case of gifts for women: soaps (nobody uses soap bars any more, except to keep fish moths out of the sock drawer), body lotions, anything involving toiletries. To add to the anxiety of the torture otherwise known as shopping, gift giving is replete with social pressure of the most awful kind. We may be lucky enough not to live among the Kwakiutl and other clans — who harbour a tradition known as the potlatch, where gift giving is so extravagant that people will literally bankrupt themselves as a matter of pride — but we do feel duty bound to weigh down our credit cards with stuff that has no inherent value but beyond the symbolising social obligation.

I’m trying to wean myself off bad gift-giving habits. My family have not yet reached the level of maturity to regard a pregnant goat in a village in Uganda as an inherently satisfying gift, so I keep my Christmas charity donations as a private matter, and hand over things that require wrapping of some sort. (Don’t get me started on gift-wrap, the world’s biggest consumer con.) Tidying out my cupboards this weekend, I found gifts that I bought for people ages ago as well as unopened, unused gifts that were bought for me. A dark part of my soul is weighing up the potential for re-gifting. Already I’ve assigned the box of Ferrero Rocher I received in last week’s work Secret Santa exchange to my grandmother, who’ll be getting a collection of items that are edible. (The poet and cartoonist Gus Ferguson once wrote about a box of Ferrero Rocher passed between the same friends for years, endlessly regifted from one dinner party to the next.) My brother who lives in the UK asked for one of my paintings, which is at least a gift that cannot be bought, though hopefully it’ll be worth something one day.

Allow me to climb onto my soapbox for a moment. The waste represented by unwanted, undervalued gifts is enormous. This would not be a problem if we lived in a world that can afford this ridiculous and pointless excess. The resources that are poured into manufacturing useless tat that nobody actually needs or wants — souvenirs are another culprit here — can and should be directed elsewhere. We look on at the politicians at COP17, expecting them to at least pretend to save the planet, but we as consumers have a moral duty to stop buying crap. Only once we cease and desist from shelling out on tealight candle holders and corkscrew/bottle opener combinations will retailers stop trying to sell them to us, and manufacturers will stop making them. Some will go out of business, but then they probably deserve to.

So don’t buy the soap this Christmas, whether it’s on a rope or in a dinky themed gift box with matching hand and nail cream.

Just get the people on your list a voucher.

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