A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Wherefore Christmas Cards?

There is a familiar economistic critique of Christmas presents, arguing that the practice of spending money upon each other (as opposed to each spending money on ourselves) destroys large amounts of value. More recently, Mike Bird has launched a crusade against the various deserts that we traditionally serve at Yuletide. If these puddings were really so good as to ever be worth eating, Bird asks, why do we not eat them year-round?

Let's suppose that these arguments go through. Should we in addition to dropping present-giving and Christmas puddings also cease to exchange Christmas cards? If the average person spends £15 and an hour or two writing cards, many of which will be noted for a few seconds only and thrown into the rubbish shortly after Christmas, can this really be an efficient use of our limited time and money?

It should be noted that, as with presents, the waste is probably at a Molochian social level rather than an individual level. For an individual to unilaterally cease giving Christmas cards could invite negative social consequences, at least in cases where one has a previously established habit of sending cards. But if we could all agree not to send cards and to recognise that failure to send a card does not mean one does not care, would we be better off?

I see two possible defences of cards. The first is that they can serve as nice decorations. But if this is really the value they give, then why do we outsource the choice of cards to people who neither have to live in our houses, nor have any idea of what other cards there will be?

The second defence, and I think the much more plausible one, is to suggest that while Molochian zero-sum status games exist and showing-you-care can lead to such traps, there is also a need for, or at an advantage to having, a bare minimum standard of showing-you-care. Saying "I hope you have a good morning" to people doesn't lead to a race for the most generous greeting, ending phone conversations with "goodbye" rather than just hanging up shows basic respect without creating long-winded rituals. Perhaps abolishing Christmas cards would create a need for a new, and more costly, way of intermittently recognising and appreciating people who you like but don't often go out of your way to talk to.

(Why then would we give cards to people who we do go out of our way to see? Because if we didn't, it would be clearer to people who did receive cards that they're not in the inner circle. In many cases this wouldn't cause any offence, but in some it's better to maintain plausible deniability. Plus, the fact that you consider someone part of your inner circle doesn't mean that they think of you in the same way. Better to avoid the risk of discovering that.)

I don't know how you'd test this without actually abolishing Christmas cards. If you did, perhaps you would avert a quite considerable waste. Perhaps you would see the development of an alternative ritual for recognising people. Perhaps such an institution would be needed but fail to develop, and you would harm our valuable, valuable social trust.

Nonetheless, E-cards seem a quite significant step forward. The decorative function is lost, but we can maintain the signalling while reducing resource consumption.

More ambitiously: perhaps Christmas cards keep us trapped in an inferior recognising-others ritual? Instead of sending people cards, make more of an effort to spend time with them. Assuming you actually enjoy someone for who they are rather than what they can do for you, why would you think that a cheap-but-still-overpriced piece of paper is a good way to interact with them?

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