(The following is an excerpt from ESPN's TMQ column...)
On Christmas Eve, The Wall Street Journal advised readers to give chocolates or wine for the holidays because they will be consumed and "won't contribute to your recipient's household clutter. Laura Leist, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, says dealing with extraneous gifts is one of her clients' biggest organizing challenges. People often don't have the space to store gift items but feel too guilty to give them away."
This statement threw me for a loop on several levels. The minor level is economic. Economists maintain cash is the ideal gift, because it causes no waste, either of resources or money value. If I spend $50 to give you a battery powered nose massager, and to you that gift merely becomes clutter in the back of the closet, then $50 has been wasted. If I give you $50 cash, you will spend it on something you value as worth $50.
What hit me over the head, though, was that in a nation where one person in eight lives in poverty -- in a world where 900 million people live on $1.25 or less a day -- "dealing with extraneous gifts" is such a problem for many Americans that a trade association exists to help them cope with this dreadful burden. While many suffer, others complain of receiving gifts they lack room to store. This is deeply messed up.
Practically everyone believes Christmas has become excessively materialistic -- too much focus on piles of junk recipients don't even want, much less need, coupled with (for Christians) hardly any mention of the original spiritual significance of the day, and (for those who celebrate secular Christmas) hardly any mention of the less fortunate.
Cash gifts solve the economic objection, but flunk on sentimental value. If family gift-giving consisted of everyone exchanging boxes containing $50, economic efficiency would rise, but the gift ritual would seem a waste of time.
So here is TMQ's suggestion for the 2011 holidays -- give the gift of receipts for charitable donations. Give money in your recipient's name to any charity, school or arts organization. Wrap the receipt in pretty foil paper. You're not wasting dollars on some hunk of junk your aunt doesn't even want, you are doing something good for the world. You can feel good, and the gift recipient can feel good.