The Case Against Christmas Lists

Here’s my thesis: Christmas lists take the magic and fun and surprise out of Christmas and reduce it to a transactional holiday morning.  Once lists enter the equation, Christmas effectively becomes a baby shower or wedding reception with lights.  There are times and places for pre-determined buying decisions, but Christmas isn’t one of them.  A Christmas morning without surprise is like a cake without icing.

I do not refer here to little kids making lists for Santa or their parents.  That’s an entirely different situation that can be cute and fun for everyone involved.  What I refer to is the practice of spouses/partners giving lists to their significant other, so the significant other has some idea what in the world to buy.  I’m not as dogmatic, but I think I’d even extend this to adult kids too.  When the lists appear, the magic of Christmas morning goes out the window.

Here’s the scenario.  Mary gives Jerry her Christmas list because she knows if she doesn’t, Jerry won’t have the slightest clue what to get her, what her size is, or where she likes to shop.  Jerry dutifully goes out and gets the first few items on the list.  On Christmas morning, Mary opens gifts that she already knows are coming and tells Jerry thank-you for completing his errands and doing his job.  Jerry tells her she’s welcome, but since he put absolutely no thought into what he got her – and had forgotten what most of the gifts were until she opened them – feels nothing but relief that at least this is over until her birthday comes around.  That’s it.  No magic, no surprise, no excitement for the giver or receiver.  The only way this could be more sterile is if they opened gifts in an operating room.

To me, this is akin to picking out engagement rings as a couple (a practice that should be illegal).  If you’ve already picked out the rings together, what mystery is left?  “Oh Joshua, you’re asking me to marry you?  I had no idea this was coming after we picked out the rings together last week and hired a videographer to film it!”

The point of Christmas morning isn’t to get what you want, it’s to experience the fun of giving the unexpected and opening the unknown.  It’s seeing the thought and consideration and, yes, love that goes into each gift you open as well as the surprise and gratefulness that goes along with each gift you give.  You might not get what you always wanted (or perhaps what fits) but it’s what someone thoughtfully believed you’d really like.  The experience of opening presents and seeing what the other person honestly thought you’d want is the point.  It’s not the gifts per se – it’s the experience.

With the list, there’s none of that.  There’s really no thought at all (except by the person making the list).  It completely lets the giver off the hook.  He doesn’t have to think since you’ve told him what to get.  He doesn’t have to work through what you might want, where the best place to get it is, what size and color work best, what would really make you excited.  Nope – all he has to do is follow a list.  And he probably doesn’t even have to figure out where to go because that’s likely on the list too.  I know one couple where not only does she give him a list every year, but when he brings the presents home, she WRAPS THEM HERSELF.  Could there be anything more cynical than that? Is there a way to suck the life and mystery right out of Christmas morning any more effectively than that?  [Actually, yes – it’s when the wife foregoes the list entirely and buys her own presents.]

So here’s a different scenario.  Bonnie and Johnnie buy gifts every year without any lists.  In the weeks leading up to the big day, Johnnie pays attention to what Bonnie talks about, what she admires, whether or not she mentions seeing things her friends wear that she likes or things she’d love to have but thinks are maybe a little too expensive.  He takes that knowledge and buys her several things he’s pretty sure she’ll like.  He even consults some of her friends at times to get their opinions and gets proficient at knowing Bonnie’s sizes based on the different stores he goes to (and he does tend to return to the same stores that have been successful with Bonnie in the past).  Shortly before Christmas – away from home so no one sees – Johnnie wraps all the presents himself.  On Christmas morning, Bonnie opens her presents – and laughs at how poorly they’re wrapped – and has a ball seeing what Johnnie thought she’d like.  Some of the gifts definitely go back, but she loves seeing his thoughtfulness and being surprised at some of his choices.  

You see?  It’s the experience.  Does Bonnie get everything she would’ve purchased if she were buying for herself?  No.  But does she enjoy her Christmas morning to the fullest?  Absolutely.  Seeing what Johnnie spent time getting her and having no idea what’s coming is a blast.  And returning some presents that missed isn’t difficult.  Christmas morning for her isn’t a transaction or simply a way to see if Johnnie completed his assigned duties.  It’s an exciting, mysterious, and thoroughly fun way to see her husband’s thoughtfulness in action.

Why is Christmas so fun for kids?  Because of the anticipation leading up to the day and the mystery of what’s under the tree.  List-free giving is the closest thing to that for adults.  It restores the magic. 

3 thoughts on “The Case Against Christmas Lists

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