Is it time to ban Christmas presents? Across the country people are growling at the enforced obligation to waste money on tat they can't afford, for people who won't use it. Festive gift-giving has lost its point, risks doing more harm than good, mis-teaches our children about values and kills the joy of anticipation of what should be a joyous time.
Before you think this is just curmudgeonly bah-humbug, this rant isn't about presents under the spruce from parents or grandparents to children or spouses. It's about the ever-growing creep of gifts to extended family, colleagues, children's teachers and more.
I first braved this subject on my website back in 2009, expecting a snowstorm of protest. Instead, many people joined my call to arms, relieved they were not alone in their distaste for the gifting ritual.
The next year, I polled 10,000 people on whether we should ban presents. Seven per cent said ditch all of them, 30 per cent said to all but children, and a further 46 per cent said limit it to the immediate family. Fewer than one in five supported giving beyond that.
Yet even with years of economic stagnation, each successive Christmas, Eid or Hanukkah, too few brave the peer pressure and shut up the giving shop. With Christmas just five weeks away, there's still time to pull back and agree on NO PRESENTS THIS YEAR.
Christmas is not a retail festival, mangers aren't sponsored by Argos (yet). Let me set out my stall.
We're disconnecting from why we give
The expectation of presents isn't culturally exclusive to the West. Anthropologists refer to it as ''ceremonial gift exchange''. Common are gifts upon marriage or coming-of-age ceremonies. This makes social and financial sense – I see it as a form of prudent social banking.
For example, when a young couple begin married life, others give cash or gifts to them as a start-up fund, providing a rapid net inflow of funds or goods.
As people age and often gain financial stability, they give gifts to newly-weds, effectively paying the system back. Over a lifespan it evens itself out, so it's an efficient method for society to focus cash on when and where it is needed.
Yet Christmas gift-giving outside the immediate family doesn't work that way. We simply swap presents, so there's no net movement of funds or goods.
Gift – giving creates an obligation on the recipient
By now, many rabid presentpushers may be spluttering over their wrapping paper, yelling "you're obsessed by materiality, what about the joy of giving?".
Of course, gifting can warm the cockles, but it can also, in some cases (shh, whisper it), be just a little selfish if you can't de- link giving from receiving.
Social convention says give a gift to someone, or their children, and you usually create an obligation on the recipient to buy back, whether they can afford it or not. If that obligation is something they will struggle to fulfil, you actually let them down.
Gift giving mis-prioritises people's finances
Christmas presents are a ''zero-sum'' game, as people usually swap gifts of similar value. Look at it as a simple equation:
David gives Nick a £40 blue tie for Christmas; Nick gives David a pair of £40 designer orange socks.
The net result ... Nick has spent £40 and got a blue tie; David has spent £40 and got orange socks.
Effectively, you pay to receive someone else's choice of object. Fine if people have wealth, but consider Janet and John. Financially, everything's bonzer for her, so she decides, generously, to buy gifts for all and sundry. In her cousin John's case, it's a pair of £25 funky cufflinks. Yet he's skint, in debt, and has three kids – but pride obliges him to buy her something of equal value.
Without the gift-giving obligation, would John have really chosen to prioritise spending £25 to receive cufflinks? Instead, perhaps he'd have replaced his children's shoes or repaid some debt. Worse still, maybe he borrowed more to buy Janet her gift.
In other words, giftswapping skewed John's priorities. He would've been better off if Janet hadn't bought him a present.
Don't fill landfills
Whether it's a naff knitted jumper from Aunty Beryl or a novelty naughty nurse outfit from your workmates, unused gifts are sent all the time to fulfil seasonal obligations. It's money spent on unneeded, unwanted and unused goods. That's bad for our finances, doesn't help the environment and just clogs up landfills.
Children aren't born retail snobs
Parents giving gifts to their children at Christmas is a joy. Yet it's still worth examining whether the size of your present pile has an unnecessary impact on your own and others' finances.
Young children often want what they want – whether it costs £2 or £200. Yet if their favourite Christmas toy is just a couple of quid, many parents feel guilty buying that alone. They search for something else to hit their own ''spending cash proves I love them'' meter – often even when in dire financial straits.
The lesson of the past few years is we must teach kids not to completely equate happiness with material acquisition. Sadly, while I've been campaigning to get compulsory financial education in schools for a few years now, many children still only get it through the ad breaks.
Some parents humorously boast that their children prefer the wrapping to the presents. A few years ago, for a pre- Christmas TV shoot, we had giant, empty wrapped boxes by a tree.
Two young children were there to play – I warned them the boxes were empty, but they didn't care, they were desperate to open them.
After giggling through the unwrapping, their joy boomed when they filled their time playing trains and castles with the empty boxes. Children don't judge gifts' quality by the price paid. So why do we judge our generosity to them by it?
Inflationary giving isn't good for the nation's children
School-age children are competitive, comparing gifts. The affluent who buy big gifts add pressure on others who, especially in these times, can't afford to compete.
This gift inflation can be horrid. With tales of birthday or bar mitzvah parties featuring appearances from international pop stars as parents compete to throw the best bash, even well-off parents can feel the pinch.
I remember sitting in a coffee shop, overhearing a 16-year-old persuading her aunt to intercede with her parents so that she could have a birthday limo trip around London, followed by dinner and an expensive nightclub.
When asked why, she named the other girls who had done it, and said she'd look "stupid" if she didn't follow.
Some will say my view is unromantic, and others more bluntly call me Scrooge. However, this isn't about stopping festive fun, it's a challenge to pressured, blithe and habitual gift-giving.
When buying's a chore, a thing to tick off a list, does that really help our pockets or our souls? Spending your time making tokens others appreciate, or even just being more considerate, is more in keeping with the spirit of winter festivals. Perhaps the real gift is to release someone from the obligation of buying you a present.
Tips to break the gifting habit
1 Get a "pre-Nupp". There's a stigma to suggesting not giving. To help, we built the Pre-Christmas No Unnecessary Present Pact tool –moneysavingexpert.com/preNupp – which generates a nice email saying "I won't buy a gift if you won't". The automation is deliberate, so the recipient feels it's part of a widespread philosophy, not just you being tight. Alternatively, cut out and send this article – then you can blame me.
2 Set a gift limit. If you are going to give, why not agree a £5 or £10 spending limit within your circle of friends, to reduce waste and cost (the tool above has a pre-Nupp Lite option to do this). Of course, some will bust the limit, but if they do, at least they will be in the wrong, so you needn't feel obliged to copy.
3 Do a secret Father Christmas. Thankfully becoming widespread in offices, there's no reason not to extend this to friends or family, too. For those who don't know, everyone's name goes into a hat, then you draw out who you're buying for. So you only buy and receive one gift, usually within a spending limit.
4 Christmas gift cheques. Whether it's a promise to give your special someone a back-rub, let kids have a sleepover or babysit for pals, your time could be the best present you ever give. To help, go tomoneysavingexpert.com/Xmascheques, where we've designed free "cheques" to print for family or friends.
5 Buy gifts for charity. Less wasteful and far closer to the Christmas spirit, why not donate a gift to charity instead? You can give on behalf of someone else, or simply donate a lump sum and tell your friends you've donated instead of giving them a gift. To make it more personal, many charities have their own gift catalogues, so you can choose something specific. Try cowsnthings.co.uk (Age UK); musthavegifts.org (World Vision); oxfam.org.uk/ unwrapped; shop.unicef. org.uk; orgoodgifts.org.
Martin Lewis is a broadcaster and creator of MoneySavingExpert.com. You can join the 7 million who receive his weekly tips by email at moneysavingexpert.com/tips