Tuesday, December 15, 2015

It's not your 19th century Christmas, fortunately -- column of Dec. 17, 2015


We blame the 20th century for ruining just about everything, but people were lamenting the commercialism of Christmas long before “A Charlie Brown Christmas” first aired on TV in 1965.

The animated special, beloved by generations, calls out the secularism of Christmas and includes a passage from the Gospel of Luke.

It may surprise you to know that authors have criticized the crass materialism of Christmas since before the Civil War.

In 1850, two years before she wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a short story called “Christmas, or the Good Fairy” that ran on the front page of a Washington paper. As the story opens, a young woman character with “jeweled fingers” says:

“`Oh, dear! Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for everybody!… Dear me, it’s so tedious! Everybody has got everything that can be thought of.’”

Even though she has the means to buy whatever she fancies and every shop is “glittering with all manner of splendors,” she’s at a loss. She hates the wretched excess of the season.  

After a gentle reminder from her aunt about the true meaning of Christmas, though, the young woman has a change of perspective and sees Christmas differently.

Historian Stephen Nissenbaum cites the Stowe story in his fascinating 1996 book, “The Battle for Christmas,” which dispels many myths about Christmas in America in the alleged good old days.

Before our particular hamster track of shopping, spending and consuming evolved,there were far more unruly Yuletide celebrations.

There was so much excess spirit and spirits during Christmas carnival revelries in the early 19th century that a movement formed to take Christmas off the streets and into homes, Nissenbaum recounts. Giving gifts soon followed. And commercialism. And stress.

“As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is eaten, the great question of buying Christmas presents begins to take the terrifying shape it has come assume in recent years,” a New York paper wrote in 1894.

Unlike our forebears, though, we have the benefit of social science research to ease some of that anxiety. Here are three tips from academic studies: 

#1 -- Don’t try to be too creative. If someone tells you what he wants, go for it.

Trying to pick a more thoughtful, impressive gift can backfire. Recipients are more appreciative and think the giver is more thoughtful when they get what they ask for, says Frank Flynn, an organizational behavior expert at Stanford University.     

Also, recipients don’t appreciate expensive gifts that much more than less expensive presents, he says. This leads us to:

#2 – Back off the stocking stuffers. Less really is more.

If you want to surprise someone with a generous gift, you could choose an expensive cashmere sweater – or, if you can afford it, you might buy the sweater and tuck in something extra, like a $10 gift card. Resist the urge to do the latter.

Adding the stocking stuffer diminishes the value of the main gift, says Kimberlee Weaver, a marketing professor at Virginia Tech. The giver inadvertently cheapens the overall perception of the gift by being more generous.

“The luxury sweater represents a generous `big’ gift. Adding on a `little’ gift makes the total package seem less big,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean the gift card itself is a bad idea.

#3 – It’s OK to give money or a gift card.

For the last nine years, the most requested gift in America has been the gift card, the National Retail Federation reports. Gift givers tend to think cash is crass and overly practical, and that givers want fancier gifts. Receivers, though, like choosing their own.

“Givers think fancier gifts will cause them to be more liked, will show they care more, and will make their friends happier,” researchers from Yale, University of Southern California and New York University say. Not so. Practical gifts accomplish all that.

Stowe had it right. “There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got,” she wrote.

So remember what Christmas is all about. Remember Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” reciting from the Gospel of Luke: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”

Merry Christmas!   

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