Who deserves a Christmas GIF?
21st December 2018

It took me years to wean myself off sending Christmas cards. Those early years of parenthood were accompanied by the clear exploitation of my children, chained to their chairs, resulting in chairs, children and cards adorned with glitter and glue. When my elves grew resentful of forced emotional labours, I spent a few years buying boxes of cards. I sent the last one in 2008,  when my youngest left school.

I might have been an early rejecter but as soon as we could express Christmas cheer online and without having to spend four bucks on a card and nearly that much on postage (slight exaggeration), I signed my last card and logged on. If email gave the Christmas card industry the heebies, one social media tool piled on the jeebies.

Cards were always the one way you could celebrate Christmas with near perfect strangers while keeping your distance, the (kind of) gift which didn’t cause a rift but emojis finally killed the Christmas card, the little decorated trees and snowpeople, the candycanes and candles addable, shareable to Insta posts, to Twitter, Snap and Facebook. They have become what passes for Yule tidings.

Why not send a GIF, instead of a gift, to your loved ones this Christmas.

The University of York’s Russell Belk is the world expert on gift-giving. Belk, a professor of marketing who’s researched gift giving for nearly 40 years tells me that the death knell for a very stationery Christmas came with the advent of those cute little characters we attach to our online messages now. It’s not just emojis.

“Sometimes we send silly cat pictures and what they mean is: ‘I am here, I remember you, you are a part of my life,” he says. In other words, for those you – really – care about, there are always Christmas GIFs, a cat in a Santa hat or similar.

Now I’ve gone one step further. This year, for the first time ever, I have not bought one single Christmas present. I’ve even resisted being signed up for any Kris Kringles. Too often you find yourself being forced to buy a present for the most irritating person in the office. (Kris Kringle is freaking torture, tell me I'm wrong). So this year, no wrapping. No sorting through the $2 bins looking for the least offensive wrapping paper. No losing the end of the sticky tape. I had nothing against Christmas gifts except for wallet wallow, that sad feeling at the end of December when you realise you’ve pissed good money up against bad collateral.

Belk says social media has also had a huge impact on gift giving during celebrations and particularly in China, where it’s possible to augment your WeChat with virtual hong bao, an digital transfer of festive funds, particularly at Lunar New Year. That particular custom has yet to penetrate the west, says Belk but he predicts it won’t be long – he says we’ve given up our strange little quirk that told us that giving money or gift cards was somehow wrong.

Gifts still matter though. Especially, it turns out, ones we buy for ourselves.

Aditya Gupta, who contributed to the new book Gifts, Romance, and Consumer Culture, says self-gifting is on the rise. It’s the idea of buying something to “treat yo’self”. There, we can be as lavish as we like but beware spending that kind of money on anyone else. Gupta, a researcher at the University of Nebraska, warns against spending big on someone you fancy just in case the feeling isn’t reciprocated.

“A gift that is perceived to be too lavish or too expensive might actually have a detrimental effect on a budding relationship because the recipient of the gift might feel awkward,” he says. A “whoa! We aren’t there yet” moment.

Nearly 10 years ago now, Joel Waldfogel wrote Scroogenomics, an influential book that said we should stop buying Christmas presents because of what he described as deadweight loss – spending too much money we don’t have on poorly considered gifts that remain unappreciated.

He had the wrong approach though. We need to fix the way we choose gifts. Be more thoughtful and maybe a touch less pragmatic. Do I really need to tell you not to buy a vacuum cleaner for Christmas? No matter how much hubby says he wants a Dyson for Christmas, do not do that. Think really hard about the object of your desire and the objects of their desires. It’s probably not even an object. It’s time, experience and intensity. It's paying attention not money.

Most of us can’t compete with the tender symbolism of Jim and Della in O, Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. He sells his beloved fob watch to buy her combs for her hair. She cuts off her locks and sells them to a hairdresser so she can afford a chain for his fob watch. This story always made me furious they didn’t speak to each other and deliciously Christmasly sad.

Still working on your Christmas gift technique? Gupta has one big tip from recent research. If you want to improve your relationship go for a gift that is an experience: holidays, movies, concerts. He says these are instrumental in fostering stronger social relationships with those you care about.

For everyone else, there’s Kris Kringle.

Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.

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