A Christmas Column

This week’s column – with the answer to the question about the picture below. And I hope Troppodillians had an enjoyable Christmas.

Some Christmas reflections
I’m afraid (but not ashamed) to say that I’m an abstemious observer of Christmas. I don’t overeat to avoid lingering discomfort and stupefaction though the afternoon. I love watching kids’ excitement. But I’m ambivalent about us adults exchanging gifts we don’t much need or want.

I blame my late father. Being Austrian, he was imprisoned as an ‘enemy alien’ in WWII in an outback detention camp in Hay NSW, where an amazingly talented bunch of European refugees passed the time with sport, chess, and impromptu teaching, theatre, music and art.

Once released they enriched Australia hugely. Dad became an economist. He wasn’t abstemious but he thought of money as a means to an end a passport to security and doing whatever you really wanted within reason, but not something to divert one from more important goals. Like me, by middle age he had pretty much everything he needed so buying him gifts wasn’t easy.

From the deadly dull perspective of a formal model of economic efficiency, gift giving is inefficient because someone else chooses for us when we know best. In 1993 economist Joel Waldfogel measured the ‘social deadweight loss’ of Christmas.

No gentle reader, ‘social deadweight loss’ isn’t meant to describe Waldfogel’s Christmas party skills (though I suspect it might). Waldfogel surveyed his students to measure the difference between the cost of the Christmas gifts they’d received with their own estimate of what they’d otherwise be prepared to pay for them.

Surprise, surprise the obvious was demonstrated. The gifts were typically valued at between nine tenths and two thirds of their cost.

In place of this ‘efficiency’ focus the left-leaning Australia Institute offers us a moralistic perspective on Christmas giving. Campaigning against excessive consumption, the Institute’s survey found that slightly over half of us receive Christmas presents we don’t use or give away.

“A bubble gum dispenser that plays MP3 files. How nice. You shouldn’t have”.

But another way to put it is that nearly half of us never receive presents we don’t use. Somehow that doesn’t sound so scandalous. The Institute also found that around a fifth of us are slaves to Christmas etiquette expecting to give Christmas presents to those we don’t want to.

This group is predominantly young and well off. And it’s disproportionately from richer more populous states. NSW and Victoria are the only states where over a fifth intend such disingenuous giving. Since you asked, the figure for Queensland is the second lowest in Australia behind South Australia. Only 17 percent of Queenslanders expect to give through a grimace this Christmas.

Of course like any social convention gift giving like Christmas itself is what we make of it. It builds and expresses goodwill and connection between people. And our skill in choosing gifts is the measure of our understanding (or even our capacity for anticipating or guiding) others desires and tastes.

But producing good gifts on time and en masse is hard. I buy gifts through the year when something seems just right for someone. If they’re for my kids I often just hand them over when the time seems right. That sometimes leaves the cupboard bare for Christmas or birthdays though my wife’s Nobel Prize in shopping fills the void.

And with adults, if I’ve not spotted a gift they’d appreciate by Christmas or if I’ve given them something before Christmas then they just go without. And so do I in the same circumstances.

But lately a few gifts have really made my Christmas.

Last year a gift from my cousin Paris was a donation to the Fred Hollows Foundation on my behalf. Her gift to me brought someone’s eyesight back a good enough gift I would have thought. The Australia Institute’s survey found that Queenslanders are amongst the most generous Australians with only 24 percent disliking the idea of a donation to charity in lieu of a gift.

(Maroons supporters should pray for blues supporters in that evil Mecca of Australian materialism south of the Tweed NSW. The figure there is 30 percent.)

And this year I got a large flat rectangular present from my Mum. A few years back we were made aware of a portrait of my father painted in the Hay camp way back in 1941 by friend and fellow inmate and refugee Erwin Fabian, an internationally recognised sculptor still sculpting today aged 90.

Mum’s gift was a brilliant reproduction of that portrait. Rapt in the unwrapping, I gazed back through time upon the face of my father a man half the age I am now. He stared back pensively from his imprisonment wondering, like those we detain today, if he’d ever be allowed to make something of his life.

I couldn’t have received a better Christmas gift.

I hope you had such luck either in the giving or the receiving.

It hardly matters which.

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Ken Parish
Ken Parish
15 years ago

Thank God for the revelation of the portrait’s subject (not to mention the loving reminiscence on your dad). For my part, the post saves me from another night of insomnia, where jen jumps on top of me just as I’m nodding off to sleep to confide her latest brainstorm about the painting: Modigliani, Grosz, Albert bloody Tucker. I mean, there was a time not so long ago when being pounced on unexpectedly by a gorgeous woman in the still watches of the night was the stuff of wildest fantasy. But now … a warm milk, a few pages of an undemanding novel and a good bowel movement (preferably not in that order) … aahh!

15 years ago

1.That explains a few things.
I was absolutely sure I’d seen it before and I couldn’t find it anywhere… for hours and hours Nic. I’d forgotton about Shock of the New and I do like that pompous arty style. So thanks again for your puzzle, looking at and reading art was a great familiar – like looking at old photos.

2.What a great gift – beautiful soft image.

3.Parish adores being put upon and my sunny power to irritate him is returning. I’ve been working hard lately and some of the finer points of communication between us have been sacrificed.
But speech is now in evidence – whole sentences that don’t include, “well if I can be home at 4.30, can you……? then I’ll….. and we should be in time to….
And look.
Writing too.
Gratuitous writing.
Thus ending months of aggressive grunt and shuffle.


[…] The Club Gruen blog has moved to new lodgings courtesy of the tireless and mercurial Ken Parish (no offence Ken, I just like the phrase). Check this out for a great human interest story about a Christmas present, an old painting of Gruen senior. Take the next step to this site for some moving and inspirational tributes to one of the really fine Austrian/Australians of the last generation. […]

David Tiley
15 years ago

The point of Xmas presents is surely in the matching of the object to the person – it is a kind of contemplation. Or – in my case with some parts of my family – an implicit admission that I really don’t know what makes them tick.

For me, the best presents provide something which I would have bought but didn’t know I would like, or I haven’t bought because I am stuck with the dull workaday discipline of “I’d like it but really I have better things to do with the money”.

The present I would most like is a home video of our family around 1953.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
15 years ago

Paradoxically I am rather a fabian/social democrat/lefty type of present giver in that I am of the firm belief that I know what is a good gift and insist on giving it regardless of whether it is wanted.

Jamie gifts currently being slowly distributed are: Peugeot pepper grinders, selection of ultra cheap but ultra sharp Kiwi kitchen knives (see your local Asian supermarket – I’m not kidding I have over $400 worth of german forged steel sitting in my drawer all usurped by a knife that cost $4.95), Petzle “miner” style, camping torches, jarrah chopping boards and Furphy Camp Ovens.

What generally happens is that everyone eventually gets presented with my inspired gift idea through birthday or Christmas. It causes lots of comment around my circle of friends. “Oh look, you’ve finally been rated as Peugeot ready” and “No he did not accidentally leave the price sticker on that knife, he WANTS you to know how much of a bargain it was”.


[…] A couple of weeks after my Christmas column appeared I received an email from Germany and I reproduce the contents of the exchance that ensued. […]


[…] Anyway, Waldfogel’s article gets taken out for its customary stroll round the block by economic columnists on every continent every Christmas. […]