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November 18, 2010

The Heroic Struggle of the People against Christmas Presents: Lincoln Allison launches his campaign

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison abhors Christmas presents - and urges all adults to abandon this hateful Victorian tradition.

In the extreme case, back in the 1990s, I actually set the chimney on fire. Twenty something adults, each giving a present to the others, and it was my job to feed the mountain of wrapping paper onto the fire, with consequences which were becoming increasingly dangerous. The conservative in me accepted it all - too readily, perhaps - as one of the social conventions of the day; the utilitarian reflected that it was all so not worth it. So much effort, money and wrapping paper, so little pleasure.

This is not an attack on Christmas. I love our provincial, English version of Christmas: family, carols, football matches, misty walks to country pubs and, above all, the temporary abandonment of normal routines. The whole thing is a lovable cliché. You can worship God or relax - or do both - or you would be able to if it weren't for the tyranny of the gift culture which at least detracts and can, for some, ruin the whole holiday.

Why do people talk the language of stress as they scurry round town in December? It isn't because they are going to miss work; it is because they have to buy presents and their resources of time or money, if not both, become strained to the limit. We should get rid of this nonsense. I mean adults buying presents for adults. Things in wrapping paper really works for children; I remember the thrill as a child of opening presents and a decade and more of being Santa convinced me that children love to have something cheap and nasty wrapped up in gaudy paper.

We then moved on to a system in which all adults in the extended family bought one present. Lots were drawn and you chose your present, wrapped but otherwise unseen, in the order of the draw, though there was a complex set of rules which allowed trading. You still ended up with a crap present, but at a fraction of the cost.

But this year, even for the immediate family assembled on Christmas Day, my heroic daughters-in-law - who have children and jobs and mortgages and no time for nonsense - have come up with something radical and rational. We draw lots, but this time to determine which person should buy a present on behalf of the collective for which other person, each of us having written down what they would like to receive.

This has already been done and the person I am buying for wants wellies; I would never have dared to buy wellies as a present under the old system. I don't know what I’m getting, because it was correctly surmised that, if asked, I would say I didn't want anything. And I don't: whereas I derived a certain amount of pleasure from buying presents, I never enjoyed receiving something I didn't want from someone who hadn't much money to buy it. The new system, incidentally, does not apply to children - who can still have as many presents as ever - nor does it prohibit presents to immediate partners.

"The commercialisation of Christmas" is like "the rise of the middle classes" in that it seems to be a feature of most periods of history yet people have always thought it was something new. Arguably, Christmas presents go back a long way: one nice, if tenuous, thread with some justification in Suetonius traces their origin to Caligula's insistence that the gifts brought to him to celebrate Saturnalia and other feasts should be less symbolic and more substantial. Laurel wreaths, indeed!

Certainly, medieval Catholicism regarded gifts to individuals at Christmas as pagan and later protestants followed this even where they allowed Christmas at all. In the United States, it would seem, presents were almost unknown in 1820, but fairly widespread by 1850. The scale of present-giving has come and gone in waves and I suspect we shall never see again the scale of conspicuous consumption in our neck of the woods in the 1980s which saw a Mercedes sports car delivered with a giant pink bow round it; the bow stayed on for some days so we could all take a peek at it.

I am less concerned with the origin of our practices than with their utility. One can easily accept that our Christmas is a cluster of things of largely pagan origin put together in their current form by the Victorians, with input from Charles Dickens and Prince Albert. The important questions are about whether these things make us happy or miserable and whether they could be improved. John Grisham's 2001 satire on the American suburban Christmas, Skipping Christmas, suggests that there are a lot of sanctions which apply if you try to change Christmas on your own and suggests a figure of $6,100 for presents and decorations for one household.

Which, for anyone who can afford it, is merely irritating and irrational. The power of the Christmas spending norm becomes tragic and disgusting for those who can't afford it. If you doubt this then search for "Christmas loans" or "festive season finance" on the internet and read the exhortations to borrow rather than to be seen to be a skinflint. Can you doubt also that Christmas has played its part in our present economic discontents?

Our next stage should be the abolition of presents except for children. Once you get the vote, you don't get the gift. If you can't enjoy the holiday without wrapping paper, then shame on you!

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.

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