Economics of…giving

Christmas, 1914. Tens of thousands of boys and men are in France, numbed by death and increasingly sceptical that the war they were promised would end by the New Year would drag on for the foreseeable future. They had seen friends die and been tortured by images of unimaginable horror. Then, on Christmas Eve, the faint echoes of ‘Stille Nacht’ could be heard floating across no-mans-land, allowing a brief moment of reflection and an escape from war. 

Presents Mike_felming p.18The story of the Christmas Day football match is, in my opinion, one of the greatest stories of hope for humanity; men trained for war overcome by the season of giving and friendship. The one-day event masked what would become one of the greatest massacres in history.

Of course, one hundred years later, and the event has been repackaged and reframed for the modern day interpretation of Christmas and the commodification of the season. Not only have Sainsbury’s successfully tugged on our heartstrings (see: John Lewis), but managed to capitalise on our collective mourning of a national tragedy. We will forever link that story with that blue chocolate bar (on sale now) and a supermarket in dire need of customers.

The linking of sentimentality to products is obvious, whether it’s our desire to be greener or memories of family, there is an advert or branding designed to exploit it. Christmas is particularly ripe for that: not only have they found that part of your brain that makes you long for Christmas Day and the opening of presents, they have exaggerated it.

The consumerism surrounding Christmas is, in one way, a good thing. Around £29 billion was spent in 2012 on everything ranging from turkeys to tinsel, trees to toys. Big supermarkets profit, as does the High Street and internet. And of course, it is a lifeline for many local, niche stores and businesses. All in all, families spend around £868 each on the various accoutrements we are led to believe are necessary; I mean, you have to celebrate it the way they do on TV, right?

Others have argued that the consumerism is, on the other hand, a bad thing. Well, economists do at least. Joel Waldgofel calls the holiday season “an orgy of value destruction”. He calculated that spoilt kids and adults alike devalue the gifts they receive by around 20%. Think about it: we’ve all received an ugly jumper or a useless electronic item and all but discarded them.

But for many, Christmas presents are investments in relationships. The gifts we buy for one enough, in behavioural economics, represent ‘signals’. If I buy one person an ill thought-out pair of socks and another a framed photo of us in a diamond-encrusted picture frame, I am clearly more interested in capitalising on that personal investment (no, not necessarily sexual, but this might be one motive). And, of course, the gifts we give have ‘receptors’; the person we present the gift to. So, stop and think: what do you want to signal through your present, is it an investment you need and how will it be perceived?

And, so we come full circle to the sodden battlefields of Belgium, 1914. The solider gives his Jerry nemesis a chocolate bar shipped in from Sainsbury’s. The gift is touching, both the signal and reception are clear. If this did happen, in some form or another, it symbolises what Christmas could be about: giving something away that means something. But it means nothing now. Christmas is now linked pure behavioural economics with big, market economics and any sentiment surrounding the season has been wrapped up and sold to the highest bidder. Bah Humbug!

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