I recently heard a clip on NPR referencing a new book by Wharton economist Joel Waldfogel titled Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays. In the book, Waldfogel makes the claim that every year, billions of dollars are wasted in the holiday shopping season because gift-givers cannot perfectly predict the needs or wants of the gift recipients in their lives, resulting in Christmas mornings all around the country during which millions of people open presents that they never really wanted to begin with. "If you discovered a government program that was hemorrhaging money -- say, spending $100 billion of taxpayer money per year to generate a benefit of only $85 billion -- you would be outraged," Waldfogel writes.
The more I think about the premise of this book, the more convicted I feel about my own Christmas spending habits. Sure, it may be true that the dollars I spend help to boost a sagging economy, but is potentially wasteful spending really the best use of our family's funds? I confess that as the mother of three young boys, I enjoy thinking about ways to brighten Christmas morning with gifts that they will find memorable and enjoyable; I tend to keep a file all year of ideas for presents that they might like, things a little out of the ordinary or that cost a little more. But to be honest, even I, the keeper of all relevant information with regards to my sons' likes, dislikes, and preferences, am hit-or-miss when it comes to their gift selections.
The Sesame Street DVD that I was certain my three-year-old son would adore last year? He's watched it once. The car design drawing set that I was positive my auto-obsessed eldest son would spend hours using? He's pulled it out twice in one year. The toy guitar I bought for our music-loving youngest son? He much prefers the real piano we already have. I'm sobered to realize that, shipping and tax included, that's $75 of waste right there -- and that's in the context of selecting gifts for people I know best. Imagine how much more potential for waste there is for recipients I don't know nearly as well. Multiply that experience millions of times over, and you get the idea that Waldfogel is on to something.
What if every individual or family with the means and inclination took a moment this Christmas season to think about whether the money they are using is truly being well spent? What if we all took a portion of the money we typically spend on gifts and instead allocate it to a cause that would truly make a difference in the many global needs that surround us? I don't mean to dampen people's Christmases and throw gift-giving out the window entirely. For many people, gift-giving is a way of communicating and receiving love from their family and friends, and I have certainly appreciated many gifts that I have been given over the years. But for every good gift I've received, I can think of another three or four that I have either never used or don't need. And I am sure the reverse is true, too -- that I have given many gifts that have ultimately ended up in a trash dump somewhere. So this year, I'm thinking about ways in which our family can reduce the shopping waste, create a climate around Christmas that is less about the gifts and more about the Giver, and help inculcate in our children a perspective about Christmas that frees them from ongoing cycles of holiday consumerism.
My kids are now old enough to have expectations about Christmas, and despite our reminders otherwise, most of those expectations have nothing to do with celebrating Jesus' birth (although they are clever enough to answer the "Why is Christmas important?" question in a way that would make any Sunday school teacher proud, even as visions of presents dance in their heads). Just today, my seven-year-old son said to me, "I think you have Christmas presents already hidden all over this house. Lots of them!" This expectation is, of course, entirely my own fault. I love watching my kids' gleeful faces when they emerge from their rooms on Christmas morning, stunned at the sight of a tree under which presents have mushroomed overnight. What parent doesn't enjoy gift-induced moments of our children's gratitude, even as we know the joy they're experiencing is fleeting at best? What parent can successfully counter the false gospel that material possessions are a source of contentment if we ourselves are perpetuating that fallacy with our lifestyle choices, particularly at Christmastime?
So I shared with my son that actually, I'd like for us to handle Christmas differently this year, and think about giving more of our previous Christmas spending to those who desperately need it, as well as taking more time to understand what Advent is all about. I explained that as his parent, I definitely wanted the chance to give him something special just as God gave his children the best present of all that first Christmas, but that we would tone things down from this year onward and have a different perspective about gift-giving at Christmastime. I felt a bit Scrooge-ish saying this, and I admit that I was worried that this news would deeply disappoint him, but after taking a moment to ponder my words, he answered, "I totally agree with this plan!" (Children, I've come to learn, often embrace spiritual truths so much more quickly than those of us who are supposed to be older and wiser.)
So we are beginning the process of change in our household this Christmas -- small changes but hopefully in the long run, significant ones: we're letting friends and family know that we'll be giving a gift to One Day's Wages in their name as opposed to buying them a gift, and asking that they consider doing something similar. My husband and I have agreed to not give each other gifts, but to instead jointly choose something we both need and can use. We will spend time shopping for gifts together as a family for needy children in our area, and yes, we will get some gifts for our own kids as well, but I'll stick to a plan of fewer and more meaningful gifts. My hope is that over time, our family and especially our kids will think of Christmas as the time of year when we primarily strive to make a difference in others' lives rather than benefiting our own. Who would have thought that a little dose of Scroogenomics was just what I needed to reclaim the true meaning of Christmas?
Helen Lee is a journalist and author, currently working on a book about missional moms for Moody Publishers. She was an editor and contributor to Growing Healthy Asian American Churches, co-founder of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute, publisher of re:generation quarterly, and a former editor and writer with Christianity Today. She blogs at missionalmoms.blogspot.com.