November 29, 2019

The best present I ever received was a cold sausage, wrapped in cling film and sellotaped to my front door. No: this was not a Mafia threat. I had been out my first real date, in my first year at university. My friends had chosen that evening to cook my favourite meal: bangers and mash. They cared that I wasn’t there. They knew I’d care about missing out on sausages. And they saved one for me.

The date was awkward and unremarkable. We talked about meerkats and Milton, as pretentious university students are wont to do. There was no parting kiss. I walked home cold and fed up.

Returning home to that solitary, slightly charred sausage gave me a sense of belonging I think you only get in your chosen family, the group of friends with whom you share your first independence. I felt that opposite of loneliness for which we have no word. Though I am glad they didn’t try to sellotape any mashed potatoes to the door.

There is a science of giving, though it doesn’t have much to say about sausages. Economists will tell you that gifts destroy utility: they’re an inefficient way of spending money because the giver never makes as good a choice as the recipient would. They’ve conducted surveys of gift recipients and asked them: how much would you pay for that jumper from Aunty Eileen, or that Lavender-scented Gift Set from Mum? And, on average, people offer a lower price than the one paid by the giver.

If you buy something for £10 and give it to someone who thinks it’s worth £7, you’re destroying value. But you’re also distorting the market because retailers know they can charge higher prices for gifts: often simply by slapping the word gift on the label, or placing the items in a section of the website called “For that special someone”.

From the perspective of economics, giving is a disaster. It persists despite its destructive financial impact because of social pressures we would do better to disregard. Anthropologists will tell you that in most societies, gifts are about power: exhibiting your strength and imposing obligations on the recipient. That’s why every year, in the run up to Christmas, clever, financially savvy people such as Martin Lewis campaign against “unnecessary” gifts, trying to stop us spending money on each other.

Of course: it is absurd to spend money you don’t have on presents that don’t matter for people who won’t value them. But we would lose something precious if we let the economists run Christmas, and allowed them to turn it into a series of bank transfers. We usually give our neighbours a box of chocolates at Christmas to thank them for accepting so many parcels on our behalf. There is no way I’m turning up this year with £4.75 instead.

The act of giving is an essential one for our souls and our happiness. It is one of the “five a day” actions we should take to protect our mental health: we are a social species, and building up a network of giving, receiving, obligation and gratitude is precisely what we humans need to thrive. We must make sure efforts to stop people wasting money don’t devalue the act of giving. We need more giving in our society, not less.

So how do we make the difference between bad giving and good? There are a few good rules of thumb. First: if you’re buying something in the Black Friday sales, you’re making a mistake. These are not exciting special offers, these are product clearance strategies by large retailers who have been planning these price reductions all year. Their main goal is to clear last year’s product lines before releasing the new ones for Christmas.

So, no: Black Friday is not the perfect time to complete your Christmas shopping, unless you want Amazon, Microsoft and Tefal to be in charge of what you buy. Choose presents based on what your loved ones want or need, not what suits the warehouse manager of a large retail chain.

Second: if your gift comes with the word “gift” on it, or is displayed in an aisle marked “gifts”, put it back on the shelf. Do not cross the threshold of Cards Galore. These are presents that you only buy when you don’t know what to get. If you don’t know what to get, you don’t know the recipient well enough to be buying them anything. You’re not giving out of love, you’re giving out of obligation. Don’t.

If you really do have to give this unfamiliar person a present, buy it in a charity shop. That way, if it’s just junk they don’t want, at least you haven’t added to the total sum of pointless junk in the world, you’ve just recycled an old piece. And the money’s gone to charity, not to fund the factories churning out novelty gifts fit only for a quick chuckle and a lifetime in an understairs cupboard.

I don’t want to urge you all to make presents at home. I don’t preach — or even know — some way of making meaningful gifts out of string and beans. I still have about three kilos of Shea butter from two years ago when my daughter decided we should make lip balm for everyone. It seemed better to buy the ingredients in bulk, but it isn’t actually cheaper if you only use a tiny amount and leave the rest to fester. The little pots of lip balm ended up costing about £3 each to produce. Don’t try that at home.

Besides, spending money on other people is good. I have a real problem with those economists and their experiment. Perhaps my neighbour would spend the £4.75 on cheese, and be marginally happier than with his chocolates. But choosing something for someone else is an act of love. When someone chooses for us, it allows us to receive more than when we choose for ourselves, whether it’s different, better, more challenging, more exciting, or even more laughable. Sometimes, even often, it will be wrong. But when it’s right it can be transcendent.

My godmother is the best present buyer I know. I adore her. She gave me presents I didn’t think I needed, that helped to shape the person I aspired to be. She bought me a trinket box with a duck on that made me want to collect things, and keep things tidy. She bought me a hen plate that inspired a lifelong love of crockery. She bought me my first pair of tweezers, just when I was getting to the age when personal grooming starts to matter. Where a less adept adult might have told me to pluck my eyebrows (one did, and I shouted at her), my godmother bought me Tweezerman tweezers, with a note as if she were letting me into a secret that ‘these are the best’. I loved them.

And sometimes it’s wonderful to spend more money on someone than they think they deserve. If you can say: “This is the best. I know you wouldn’t buy it for yourself. But I want to.” That’s not economic efficiency. That’s love.

And presents don’t even need to be any good to be part of our lives’ story. When I was eight years old, my brother asked for “something round” for his birthday, meaning that he wanted a ball, but was ambivalent about what kind. I found and wrapped a pea from the freezer, thinking this was the best joke ever. Then, in doubt, I bought him a four pack of Mars bars as well. Then I got hungry and ate one. His tenth birthday present was a pea and three Mars bars. This was a bad present; possibly one of the worst presents ever given. And yet it has brought us 30 years of laughter. Economists can’t measure that.