"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Do you recognize at least part of this famous quote? It is attributed to Charles Dickens. This Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities takes place in England and France in 1775. The plot centers on the years leading up to the French Revolution and culminates in the Jacobin Reign of Terror. It tells the story of two men, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, who look similar but are very different in traits.
The passage from the novel makes marked use of anaphora, the repetition of a phrase at the beginning of consecutive clauses—for example, “it was the age . . . it was the age” and “it was the epoch . . . it was the epoch. . . .” This technique, along with the passage’s steady rhythm and opposition, suggests that good and evil, wisdom and folly, and light and darkness stand equally matched in their struggle.
Every year it seems the Christmas season brings a dichotomy that reminds me of "the best of times" and "the worst of times." Despite celebrating the birth of the savior and the spirit of giving, I feel commercialism and going in debt ruin the holiday. To me, the contrast is polarizing more and more with each passing holiday season.
A frequent complaint from consumers is that stores start Christmas "too early" and too aggressively. Advertisers relentlessly fuel the demand for buying gifts and press everything involving the holiday upon the populace way before the populace itself is ready.
Of course, retail outlets expect to do big business during the holidays. The more sales, the better. Add relevant decorations, cards, food and goods that are all marketed for Christmas and personal expenses for most families mount to exorbitant levels. Statistics show, in America, retailers make 25% of their yearly sales and 60% of their profits between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
This year, Americans, on average, expect to spend $786 on Christmas gifts, which is similar to their holiday spending estimates in each of the past two years. This figure portends respectable seasonal sales growth -- particularly important in light of the recent government shutdown.
I am no longer a person who gives or receives expensive gifts at Christmas. I believe enjoying Santa and gifting are important parts of Christmas for kids. I love to see children delight in opening gifts. For them, Christmas toys and games are magical possessions, objects of longings fulfilled. But, even most children quickly tire of many expensive toys they receive and find other interests to fill their leisure hours.
Yet, the truth is not much mature thought goes into buying Christmas gifts. Instead, children see advertisements and their friends' "sweet" possessions, and the kids tell adults what they want. What about the needs? Almost every child knows clothes and items of utility are such "boring" gifts and an overabundance can result in the kid having a "bad Christmas." No loving adult wants his loved ones to feel that way on Christmas morning. When it comes to gifting, most adults are incredibly materialistic and child-driven.
The people without large sums of capital to spend like to think that quantity makes up for quality, so even those who cannot afford high-priced items feel they must fill the space under the tree with piles of cheap presents containing worthless merchandise. And, naturally, Christmas is a time for overspending with credit cards and convenient Amazon deliveries. I know I hear so many people say expensive toys break easily and are "nothing but junk in high demand."
Before you label me another Dickens' character -- "a Scrooge"-- let me write what some researchers say about the good of children and gift giving. Giving the right gifts can benefit all involved in the process of gifting.
A consumer may give gifts to children for paternalistic purposes. If the gain in utility exceeds the lost utility associated with the cost of the gift that purpose is met. Some gifts truly maximize utility, and this paternalistic gift-giving motive will most likely be associated with children. For example, if a parent prefers to give a child a classic novel rather than a comic book, cash, or an ounce of cocaine, the gift boosts the child's human capital. Clearly, the institution of Christmas in-kind giving can exist in a paternalistic world.
(H.B. Gerard and Matthews. "The Effects of Severity of Initiation on Liking For a Group: A Replication. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 1966)
Then, there is the shared experience of children opening presents on Christmas. This can enhance the parents' direct or "warm-glow" benefits from giving. It feels good to give a child happiness by providing him or her with a well-thought-out gift. In turn, the child hopefully learns to model such positive behavior when reaching adulthood.
In addition, if individuals feel more responsible for the development of children than for that of others, then they will be more inclined to give gifts to children that "enhance the child's human and consumption capital." Gifts that teach positive principles or skills and gifts that encourage the further pursuit of knowledge certainly do this.
Last, gifts from children, themselves, may create other "positive externalities" that further enhance Christmas gift giving. For example a child may give a grandparent a piece of dried clay with an imprint of the child's hand that has a sentimental value to the grandparent in spite of its low cost of construction. Meaningful gifts like this can actually decrease the importance of materialism and reinforce the true meaning of the season.
(Carol Horton Tremblay and Victor J. Tremblay. "Children and the Economics of Gift-Giving." Applied Economics Letters. 1995)
Even if a Christmas gift is enjoyed, it may not be what the recipient would have bought had they spent the money themselves. In 1993, Joel Waldfogel, an economist at Yale University, sought to estimate the disparity in dollar terms. In a paper that has proved seminal in the literature on the issue, he asked students two questions at the end of a holiday season:
* first, estimate the total amount paid (by the givers) for all the holiday gifts you received;
* second, apart from the sentimental value of the items, if you did not have them, how much would you be willing to pay to get them?
The results? On average, a gift was valued by the recipient well below the price paid by the giver.
"The most conservative estimate put the average receiver's valuation at 90% of the buying price. The missing 10% is what economists call a deadweight loss: a waste of resources that could be averted without making anyone worse off. In other words, if the giver gave the cash value of the purchase instead of the gift itself, the recipient could then buy what she really wants, and be better off for no extra cost."
"Non-cash gifts from extended family were found to be least efficient."The most efficient gifts (those with the smallest deadweight loss) were those from close friends and relations, while non-cash gifts from extended family were the least efficient. As the age difference between giver and recipient grew, so did the inefficiency. All of which suggests what many grandparents know: when buying gifts for someone with largely unknown preferences, the best present is one that is totally flexible (cash) or very flexible (gift vouchers).
"If the results are generalised, a waste of one dollar in ten represents a huge aggregate loss to society. It suggests that in America, where givers spend $40 billion on Christmas gifts, $4 billion is being lost annually in the process of gift-giving. Add in birthdays, weddings and non-Christian occasions, and the figure would balloon. So should economists advocate an end to gift-giving, or at least press for money to become the gift of choice?"
(Joel Waldfogel. "Is Santa a Deadweight Loss?" The Economist. December 20, 2001)
Solving A Gift Dilemma
As we all know, the giving of gifts at Christmas was inspired by the notion that Jesus received three gifts from the Magi on December 25 -- gold, frankincense and myrrh. These were considered expensive gifts, so Jesus' did receive items of great worth from the kings. Although Matthew’s gospel does not include the names or number of the Magi, many believe that the number of the gifts is what led to the tradition of the Three Wise Men
In fact, these same three items were apparently among the gifts, recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.E.
The Book of Isaiah, when describing Jerusalem’s glorious restoration, tells of nations and kings who will come and “bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).
Even though these gifts provided financial resources for the round trip Mary and Joseph took to Egypt, they were symbolic of the future roles of Jesus.
Gold was a gift for a king (but in the Old Testament gold was also the proper setting for the sanctuary where God dwelt among His people). Gold suggested Jesus's royalty as King of the Jews and Lord of lords. In both the Old Testament Tabernacle and the Temple, gold was used plentifully, so gold is also associated with worship. And we are told that in the heavenly city we will "walk on streets of gold." (Revelation 21:21)
Frankincense represented sweetness and Jesus's divinity. It was a very costly perfume and was a fragrant gum distilled from a tree. In the Old Testament it was sprinkled on sacrifices. It was also used in worship, where it was burned as a pleasant offering to God. Some sources say it was used as medicine.
Myrrh represented bitterness, and was also an anointing oil. Myrrh was brought as a gift to acknowledge the human suffering Jesus would experience as a man -- His humanity. It was actually an aromatic gum and was obtained from a tree in the same manner as frankincense. It was used chiefly in embalming the dead. (John 19:39), so the myrrh was symbolic as a a preparation.
Three-Gift Rule for Christmas
Stacy Myers, a mom of two who lives in Marion, Virginia, said all of those gifts played a role when she and her husband adopted a rule after their first child was born.
“We decided we wanted to simplify Christmas here at our house by using the three-gift rule so that we could focus on the real reason for the season, which is the birth of Jesus, instead of ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme’ and ‘What can I put on my list?’” Myers said.
Now, this custom is known as the Three Gift Rule. Here is how it works.
The family asks their children to compose a list that includes a gift in each of the following categories based upon the presents of the Magi:
* The gift of gold, which symbolizes something of great value. Of course, today this gift would be something thatchildren would treasure, like a favorite toy, or it could be their one "special" request gift. I believe every child has one special request that makes Christmas "memorable." Check Amazon for ideas: http://www.amazon.com/
* The gift of frankincense, which symbolizes something spiritual. This might be a Bible, a thoughtful book, or a Kindle reader. Or, it could be any gift that focused on spiritual significance. I assume one might think of something special that provides the added bonus of symbolic meaning. Perhaps a delight for the senses: music, crafts, room decorations, or even meaningful, instructive computer software. Click here to find a site with gifts that help children learn: http://www.gifts.com/recipient/child/learning-and-educational-gift-ideas/hwXRKqA6O
* The gift of myrrh, which symbolizes a medicinal item back in the day. This doesn't have to be personal health aides. It could really be any present that helps protect or heal the body -- instructional games, clothes, shoes, art supplies, models, sporting goods, outdoor supplies. Here is a website that you can click for some uncommon "gadget" gifts: http://www.uncommongoods.com/office/desk-accessories/gadgets-tools?9gtype=content&gclid=CLCpxfL8trsCFdEWMgod-z4AFg&9gkw=cool gadget gift&vi
There’s also a bonus in Stacy's version of the three-gift Christmas: she asks each child to come up with a present idea for someone in need. And, of course, this includes devising a way to accommodate giving the present to the recipient.
I hope I have helped someone deal with the dilemma of spending for gifts and satisfying children at Christmas. I love this idea of three-gifting, and I realize some will think three gifts represent a meager Christmas morning. But, maybe readers can modify this idea to better suit budgets while selecting perfect gifts. I have seen some children enjoy playing with the big boxes in which expensive gifts are contained more than playing with the gifts themselves.
Have a Merry Christmas all. And I hope your budget is smiling. Thanks for reading.
Gifts of the Magi