Christmas and the joy of going giftless

by Listener Archive / 20 December, 2012
A happy Christmas is more likely when we give less emphasis to exchanging pressies.
Christmas - the joy of going giftless

'Ware ye of Christmas – the only thing more unrealistically presented on television and in movies is love … If you have a particularly smart six-year-old in your house then watch it – this column contains spoilers.

Few adults believe in Santa. Many more children do, with a lot of encouragement from adults – and despite the discouragement of Grinches. Those who stop believing typically do so around seven or eight years old. And rather than spending the rest of their lives scarred by the knowledge, the most common emotion is positive – a bit like the feeling you get after solving a puzzle. Indeed, parents are often more unhappy than their children at the idea of them not believing in old St Nick.

Much riskier territory is the selection of the right gift. Sadly, although a well-chosen gift appears only to cement existing relationships (it doesn’t make them better), a poorly chosen one can have more serious consequences – but it depends on whether you’re male or female.

Women are more forgiving of a dodgy gift (perhaps used to it after receiving many disappointing kitchen utensils and much ill-fitting lingerie), but guys take it more personally – perhaps inferring that they and the giver aren’t as compatible as they had thought. If anything, women overcompensate psychologically when their partner messes up, as if to protect the relationship.

Gifts are tricky territory because we typically see them as meaning something. For instance, Grandma might be able to get away with giving money. But on the basis of research, it wouldn’t be encouraged – money doesn’t say intimacy, understanding or effort. Not to mention that giving someone a $20 note could be misinterpreted as reflecting the value of the relationship. Gift vouchers appear to be immune to some of these problems, however.

Christmas can be a stressful time, which boils down to expectation – the expectation that the exchanges of gifts and good tidings around the dining table (even with grumpy Uncle Bob, whom you usually avoid) will go perfectly. The best things in life may be free, but this is lost in television advertising in which Christmas becomes a sparkly and – above all – expensive affair. This seems particularly inappropriate at a time when people are feeling the pinch of the financial downturn.

It’s not a surprise, then, that in those few studies that have looked at surviving and thriving at Christmas time, the best outcomes are not material ones. This research shows that people who focus on family, religion (if that’s important to them) and, perhaps a little oddly, the environment, get the most out of the festivities. I suspect that’s because all of these aspects are about relationships.

In spite of the stress of the family battleground, people who focus on the relational opportunities the occasion presents (healing rifts, seeing people you haven’t seen for a long time, welcoming new family) enjoy Christmas more. In fact, the more materialism and pressies dominate, the less happy people are. Believe it or not, Christmas doesn’t just have figurative benefits but literally life-enhancing ones as well.

For instance, there’s reason to think that the imminence of important dates and celebrations affects when we die. Women may be more likely to die just after birthdays, for instance, and men just before (miserable sods) and it’s argued this is because women hang on because of the chance to consolidate for one last time those important relationships. Men … not so much.

But Christmas … ah, Christmas. It turns out that you’re statistically less likely to die on or just before Christmas (but more likely to kick off in the new year). Bear this in mind as you get ready for that drink on New Year’s Day.
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