“It’s probably wrong to pillage the planet in celebration of Christmas, but if pillage we must, we should at least do it efficiently.”

Wharton’s Joel Waldfogel’s work on the economic waste and inefficiency of Christmas gifts is featured in the Globe today.

I’ve been reading quite a bit about gift-giving as part of a paper that deals with the notion of favours and gifts in trust building.  One of the reasons I suspect we’ll never see Waldfogel’s perfectly logical prescriptions broadly adopted is that gift-giving is not just an act of exchange:  It is a language.

Theodore Caplow (as part of the Middletown III studies) investigated Christmas gift-giving in an average middle American town.  He concluded:

“Gift exchange, in effect, is a language that employs objects instead of words as its lexical elements. In this perspective, every culture… has a language of prestation to express important interpersonal relationships on special occasions, just as it has a verbal language to create and manage meaning for other purposes.

Visualizing Christmas gift giving as a language – or, more precisely, as a dialect or code – helps to explain, among other matters, the insistence on wrapping and other signs to identify the objects designated for lexical use and the preference for the simultaneous exchange of gifts at family gatherings rather than in private.

Gift messages are due from every person in a parent-child relationship to every other. The individual message says “I value you according to the degree of our relationship” and anticipates the response “I value you in the same way.” But the compound message that emerges from the unwrapping of gifts in the presence of the whole gathering allows more subtle meanings to be conveyed. It permits the husband to say to the wife “I value you more than my parents” or the mother to say to the daughter-in-law “I value you as much as my son so long as you are married to him” or the brother to say to the brother “I value you more than our absent brothers, but less than our parents and much less than my children.” These statements, taken together, would define and sustain a social structure, if only because, by their gift messages, both parties to each dyadic relationship confirm that they have the same understanding of the relationship and the bystanders, who are interested parties, endorse that understanding by tacit approval.”

There is no question that Christmas gift-giving involves extraordinary waste and inefficiency in economic terms:  But any ‘solution’ to this social problem must address our tendency to use gifts to convey sophisticated, compound signals about our relationships with others.  I’m not convinced that Waldfogel’s clever notion of charity gift cards serves this purpose.

Caplow, T. (1984).  Rule enforcement without visible means: Christmas gift giving in Middletown.  American Journal of Sociology 89(6), 1306-1323.  [Link]