How to give something that'll be appreciated this Christmas

Posted on 18 Dec 2023

By Denis Moriarty

Christmas Presents i Stock 914725806
Giving is not just about handing out gifts that recipients may not even want, writes Denis Moriarty.

About this time of the year people start circulating estimates of what proportion of Christmas gifts are wasted, in the sense of not being what the recipient wanted, which I always think is missing the point, the answer being pretty well all, almost by definition (for adults, at least).

A Christmas gift, after all, under the most favourable circumstances, is

  1. something the recipient hasn’t thought worth buying for themselves, in a society where most people can afford anything small enough to put under a tree
  2. something the giver didn’t think of as significant enough to be worth handing over at any other time of the year
  3. something the giver didn’t like so much themselves that they wanted to keep it.

That doesn’t leave much. When the person tearing away the Santa wrapping paper says “Oh, you shouldn’t have!”, the odds are that they’re entirely sincere.

For an economist, the ideal exchange would be people exchanging money, or just having the one who gave most give the difference between the two sums.

For a sociologist, though, the gift exchange business is more functional. It’s a bonding ceremony, a declaration that there are links of dependence in this relationship. It’s a wizened remnant of what was once an essential element in social life. When a hunter-gatherer had run down an okapi he didn’t guzzle all the meat himself, he handed out carefully calculated organs to the rest of the group to spread the luck around.

Refugees in a war zone are a lot less picky than your nearest and dearest, and a bit of warm inner glow never hurt anyone.
Denis Moriarty
Our Community's Denis Moriarty

In a medieval village any peasant family who’d had a good year would have a big feast (around Christmas, probably, before the stored turnips withered) because there would be bad years when they’d be botting fragments of soupbone off their more fortunate friends and they needed some goodwill out there. Generosity came with expectations, or at least hopes. Gift-giving was insurance, a way of creating moral debts that you could draw on in a non-monetary economy.

These days apprenticeships in peasantry and hunting aren’t particularly hot tickets, and the web of relationships that surrounds us all has spread out to be vastly wider but less personalised. Our main channel of giving is taxes. The NDIS is the National Disability Insurance Scheme, but if we wanted to be tricksy we could also separate out the National Aging Insurance Scheme (pensions), the National Unemployment Insurance Scheme (Robodebt), and the National Health Insurance Scheme (hospitals and doctors).

The National Invasion Avoidance Insurance Scheme (Defence) is probably a bridge too far.

We give, that is, to people we don’t know and probably wouldn’t like, because we expect that they – or the state on their behalf – will chip in when we ourselves falter and need a shoulder to lean on. Would taxpaying be more cheerful if it involved holly and a chubby figure in a red suit (Father Refund? Jim Chalmers, make a note. If you want to be a legend…).

And in between your family pretending to smile over the dodgy aftershave and the unseen millions who are the beneficiaries of your income tax comes the kind of giving that Charles Dickens’ Scrooge was so down on in A Christmas Carol. Two gentlemen came calling on him seeking charitable donations:

‘A few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?’

‘Nothing!’ Scrooge replied.

‘You wish to be anonymous?’

‘I wish to be left alone,’ said Scrooge. ‘… I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.’

Scrooge repents, of course, after a crash course in Intensive Dickensing, and among the close-up satisfactions of handing of geese and puddings to his relatives and employees he did in fact go back and drop a reasonable sum into that Warmth for the Poor Fund he’d previously dismissed. Which is more than most Australian families do, even those who’ve been to one of the two Christmas Carol-themed plays currently on downtown.

If the statistics from Our Community’s own giving platform – Give Now – are representative, Australians are moved to give not by Christmas in December but by Taxmas at the end of June. Holly and plastic trees don’t seem that reliable a prompt after all.

Come on – here’s an appeal to your economistic side. Work out what you’re spending on Christmas presents, all up, calculate the 20 per cent of that that’s pure loss, representing the gifts that will be binned or immediately regifted, and give that amount to Médecins Sans Frontières. Refugees in a war zone are a lot less picky than your nearest and dearest, and a bit of warm inner glow never hurt anyone.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of, a social enterprise that helps Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits.

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