I am off work until Wednesday, and I intend to enjoy myself thoroughly. True, today will involve lots of housework and cooking a turkey. But if I approach it in the right spirit I can enjoy that, too. There is also a party today, and the boys will be doing the final errands so I don’t have to. This also gives them control over the last additions to the feast. While I intend to argue for fruits and vegetables, I am resigned to their getting mostly chips and sodas.

Not that this will interrupt my healthy lifestyle. So far this week:

gym visits: 0
grocery visits: 3
average daily servings of vegetables: 1
average daily servings of sweets: 3

I’m not saying that’s a good thing; I’m just reporting.


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inches of knitting completed: 4
fact-checking assignments completed: 0

And who cares? Tra la la, say I, and fa la la for that matter. ‘Tis, in case you hadn’t heard, the time of Yuletide glee. As long as all the cooking and baking get done, everything else can wait

A good song for today is “Rejoice and Be Merry,” or “The Gallery Carol.” Click on the title for words and a midi, or here for words and notes, and here for proper sheet music if you have Sibelius. In fact, that last link gives you a nice midi with SATB and organ accompaniment, and the option of printing out the arrangement for a reasonable fee, so you might want to go there and download Sibelius just for the purpose.

This carol comes from Dorset, probably in the 18th century, and the words are just the familiar Christmas story in straightforward and undistinguished poetry, but the tune is a lot of fun and suited to fancy harmonies and embellishment. If you have a lot of instruments in the house, this could be an excellent piece to give everyone a chance, including the French horn. This would also be very nice played in bluegrass style. Or sung in the car as you go on your round of errands. Or, in my case, hummed joyfully as I scrub things.

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Dog, confused by merriment.

Oh, yes, the economics final is past, so I can go back to thinking of economics as an interesting topic. Perhaps you would like to know about the efficiency of Christmas presents. This guy Waldfogel made headlines by reporting that Christmas giving represents a net economic loss of 16%, compared with having everyone keep their money and buy things for themselves. The enormous amount of money spent on Christmas gifts in the U.S. every year is then invoked, and the total net loss calculated, and the reporters dust off their hands, having put their quirky Christmas story for the day to bed.

Other economists disagree, and have the figures to prove it.

Waldfogel found that recipients of gifts underestimated their cost. This was especially true if they were things that had been asked for — people getting stuff they said they wanted were really likely to undervalue them. He further found that cash was devalued by givers by an average of $3 per gift. That is, in determining how much to spend on an individual, people felt they should give $3 more in cash than they would spend if they bought a gift. Using this information and the whole economist’s utility value thing, he decided that Christmas gifts could be abolished in favor of personal shopping sprees, with a net gain to the U.S. economy.

The other economists pointed out that all this was based on asking college students to estimate the cost of things, an exercise which might say more about college students than about Christmas gifts. One researcher tried instead to determine how much it took to persuade college students to sell their gifts, and found that they actually valued them quite a bit more highly than the cost. Still others checked out the sentimental value and found that we tend to treasure gifts at a level incompatible with their actual value or even what we think they cost. In fact, this study found that students wouldn’t sell ugly mugs given to them at random by strangers, because they were perceived as gifts. Other students, asked to buy the same ugly mugs, wouldn’t buy them even for very small sums. The perceived value, then, was not so much about the gift as about the giving, as anyone who has been given a drawing by a child could readily tell you.

Waldfogel concedes that, if the giver can manage to whip up a sentimental response in the recipient, or to take advantage of “imperfectly informed” recipients by giving them something they wouldn’t have thought of buying for themselves, then there might be a break-even or even a slight gain in the efficiency of Christmas gifts.

Christmas, for me, is not mostly about presents. I think that presents for children are important — even presents they ask for — because children cannot afford to buy things for themselves. For adults, I go with handmade gifts or really well-chosen ones (that’s the “imperfectly informed” part). My mother has always been very good at that. People open her gifts and are amazed because they perhaps do not even know what it is, but it turns out to be a wonderful thing that they can’t imagine doing without once they have it.

The moral of the story is probably not that Christmas gifts should be eliminated, but perhaps that they should be more of a surprise. However, I know someone who gives her sister a gift card each year. The two of them agree on an amount, they ask each other where the gift card should come from, and each goes and buys a card for the other at the requested store, for the identical amount. That almost seems like a waste of time. But perhaps it is more a sort of permission to go buy something with money that the recipient might otherwise feel she ought to use for the kids or the gas bill.

The other moral of the story is that economists think they can calculate everything.