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Friday 2 January 2015

Celebrating Christmas alphabetically

My family has been celebrating "alphabetic" Christmas since 2002, working our way through the English alphabet. It's a pity that we didn't start in 2001, because it meant that we skipped the letter "A", which we will presumably do in 2027. Anyway, the 14th letter of the alphabet is "N", so for 2014 Christmas all the presents began with the letter "N".

The rules initially were "begins with the letter of the year, and under $10", but we found that very difficult and bumped it up to $20. This turns out to be the sweet spot where it is still possible, but only just.

Sometimes I cheat a little: if I'm buying from the USA I'll make it a limit of USD20 per present, and then I'll get it shipped to Stackry (because so many USA retailers will offer free shipping to a New Hampshire address). Then I get Stackry to consolidate it into one package and send it to me... which means I can't really calculate how much the shipping of each item actually was, and I can pretend to have stayed within budget.

Why do we do this?

Christmas gift giving is often extremely stressful and awkward. It's very hard to figure out what to buy for someone.

In the past, I don't think it would have been this difficult. Everyone was much poorer. Firstly, this meant that there was always something that you knew a recipient genuinely needed. Secondly, it meant that buying a present was a real sacrifice. It might have meant going without a meal, or going without something important in order to buy for someone else. But today, most of the time there is no sacrifice in buying a present. It doesn't cost anything other than money -- money that can be earned before or even afterwards.

What this leads to is a pseudo-sacrifice of time. The problem seems to be that it is too easy to buy presents, so no-one feels comfortable until they've spent a lot of time on it (spinning uselessly, second guessing, and so on).

So the solution to this is to agree to create arbitrary, hard constraints that make the problem more difficult. We agreed to alphabetic Christmas because it means that it is very, very hard to find anything suitable. Once you've found something, you don't ever wonder whether there is a better present for someone -- there almost certainly isn't. And if not everything is an absolute hit with the recipient, they understand that there really might not have been anything better.

It works quite well: success is when the recipient bursts out laughing from the absurdity of it, or discovers that actually, the present is something really useful or good.

In case anyone else is doing alphabetic Christmas, here's some suggestions of some sensible presents beginning with the letter 'N' (Christmas 2014 for us):

  • Nibble pan (a cake pan with a built-in cupcake receptacle so that you can eat a sample to make sure the recipe is working).
  • Nasturtium and nigella seeds
  • No Thanks - a very clever card game
  • Nanobots Arena - a really engaging tile game where you are battling your nanobots out in a petri dish
  • A Larry Niven novel (or if you look you sci-fi more gritty, perhaps the Nightwatch series.
  • A bit of a cheat: one of the most successful and interesting  non-fiction books of recent years.

We're already dreading 2024 (when everything begins with the letter 'X') but I think we all still plan to give it a try. We don't know what we'll do once we've cycled back to "A" again: perhaps we'll go through the alphabet again, or do it in another language, or something else.

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