Flexible, enjoyable, efficient, some or neither?

By Alex Trachsell

Illustration credit: Kathy Lee

The holidays are upon us and, last I checked, that means we ought to cherish our “loved ones” or something about goodwill to all mankind. Well, that’s what we ought to do, but we all know that the force of social pressure is often mightier than the spirit of the holidays.

Yes, I know that the Whos of Dr. Suess’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (read: How the Grinch Stole the Holidays!) celebrate Christmas in spite of the Grinch nabbing all their presents, demonstrating that the holidays are so much more than gifts. At the same time, you can’t tell me that the adults of Whoville weren’t worried for the moment they thought they were the only ones who had their gifts snatched. “Holy guacamole,” I imagine one Who to have thought, “that great, big, Electro Who-Cardio Floox wasn’t cheap!” (see image above). They continue: “And oh my, I hear the neighbours bought their children a pair of jing-tinglers each! We’ll look like such fools if we’re the only family without a gift to show.” No, whether we like it or not, gift giving is a central tradition to the holiday season. Beyond that, we place value in our gifts (I certainly would if I splurged for an Electro Who-Cardio Floox) and so we naturally don’t want them to go to waste. As such, I think Whos and Grinches alike can agree that there’s a right way to exchange gifts and a wrong way (just remember, I respect all cultural practices of gift exchange).

With this in mind, and having done a bit of field research, I’ve taken to reviewing a number of gift exchange ideas. Each practice will be scored from 1-5 on flexibility (meant to reflect how applicable the practice is to different situations), enjoyability (how much objective fun there is to be had in the practice) and efficiency (how well the cost of the gift is compensated for by the joy of the recipient).

  1. Secret Santa – Flexibility: 4, Enjoyability: 4, Efficiency: 3

The age-old, time-honoured tradition of Secret Santa is about as simple as it gets. Each person draws the name of someone else in the group and is responsible for obtaining a gift for that person. During the exchange, each participant takes the gift with their name, never knowing who the gifter was.

Secret Santa is common for a reason. On one hand, it’s a lot more affordable than giving everyone a gift, so it’s fairly accessible. On the other hand, it can be personal or non-personal as you like, making it just as suitable for anyone from colleagues to family members. Then there’s the enjoyability derived from trying to guess your Secret Santa based on the gift. Oh, what fun!

But beware of an often overlooked, major drawback. Sometimes you have just the perfect gift idea for someone, but you draw a name and find you’re going down someone else’s metaphorical chimney. Now you have a choice. On one hand, you can give them the gift and incur the wrath of every other Secret Santa who joined this little game so that they didn’t have to bankrupt themselves getting gifts for everyone they know. Congratulations, you’ve now set a precedent for this kind of behind the back buying, making everyone lose confidence in your next Secret Santa (assuming you still know all these people you’ve alienated a year later). On the other hand, you can ignore the idea, forgoing the one time a year you can actually show people how much you care about them without looking like a complete weirdo in our emotionally repressed society.

  1. Yankee Swap – Flexibility: 5, Enjoyability: 1, Efficiency: 2

In this strange ritual, each person brings one wrapped gift which anyone can make use of (ideally). After an order is assigned in which people will select gifts, the first person selects and opens a gift. Then, the subsequent participants can either take a gift that’s already been opened or open a new one themselves.

What kind of horrible perversion of the holiday spirit is this? To start, there is little point in bringing something dedicated to someone particular in the group. Furthermore, once you start playing this game, you quickly become aware of who wants what. This is where the real strategy of the game comes into play. Do you take someone else’s gift, declaring that, in this time of goodwill and generosity, your wants are more important than others? Or do you let them keep their trinket, instilling in them the guilt that they’re withholding something that you might want more than them? From my experience, a bit of both occurs, some mutual respect is lost and then trades are quietly made behind people’s backs.

  1. Conspiracy – Flexibility: 3, Enjoyability: 3, Efficiency 4

This is like Secret Santa, but where one person is left out of the group. So when Alex, Arnold, Aiden and Andrew plan on Conspiracy gift giving, Alex, Arnold, and Aiden will collectively get a gift for Andrew. Then this is repeated with every other participant. Honestly, I thought that this was something exclusive to birthdays, Bar Mitzvahs, name days and other celebrations where one person is singled out as the gift recipient. However, some think otherwise.

Having done single-target conspiracies, I can only guess that a holiday conspiracy will be a logistical nightmare (as conspiracies often are). Not only do you have to coordinate chats which exclude the recipient, but you then have to brainstorm ideas (the fun, reasonable part), try to decide on an idea, decide who is buying it and then compensate them for it (significantly more challenging). Then repeat for the number of other people in the group. If you’re a student or just generally have bad organization, be a grown-up and realize that this is probably out of your league. You could sooner pull off the Gunpowder Plot.

  1. Christmas Crackers – Flexibility: 3, Enjoyability: 2, Efficiency: 1

Christmas crackers (again, read: holiday crackers) really force one to ask, why do we continue to celebrate the holidays? (see “Opinion: Traditions are Healthy— Let’s Celebrate Them” by Philip Harker) After all, there’s clearly no value in opening up the prepackaged, less than dollar store gifts that come in Christmas crackers. Thus, any value which one derives from opening Christmas crackers must come from simply partaking in the tradition for tradition’s sake. Are the rest of the holiday traditions this pointless? You’d think that they’d at least receive high flexibility (given that they can be bought in a pinch), but introducing them to a group of people who don’t know of the tradition also means you have to explain why your culture contains such a useless gesture. I haven’t even bothered to explain it here.

  1. Cold Hard Cash – Flexibility: 2, Enjoyability: 1, Efficiency: 5

Lastly, there’s the economist’s favourite. Generally speaking, no one is in a better position to know what you want than yourself. Thus, gifting money can’t cause a loss in efficiency, since resources are being allocated to the one who values it most. That said, unless you’re someone’s grandparent, giving money to someone is pretty socially unacceptable. Unless you’ve given money to charity in someone’s name, in which case you’re an excellent person.

On the whole, the objectively best gift exchange idea is obviously whichever one you and your friends/family/colleagues find most appealing. There will likely always be some stress in gift-giving, but that’s true with anything we care about. If we truly care about the recipients of our gifts, then how can we help but hope that we’ve done the best we can for them, regardless of what gift-swapping system we use? That said, my very precise scoring would suggest that Secret Santa is the superior gift exchange process, with a total score of 11.

Well, this certainly was a lot of thinking for something as simple as the holiday spirit and light-hearted gift giving. Perhaps next year we should “stop this whole thing from coming!” – The Grinch.

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