How to be generous at Christmas

“showing a readiness to give more of something, especially money, than is strictly necessary or expected”1

Generous gifts at Christmas are a balancing act between social duty, economics and expectations. In the definition (above) ‘more’ is important. A generous person should balance ‘more’ with appropriate. The generous gift is a nuanced understanding of what’s excessive and carefully avoid that pratfall. Excessive gifts are about the giver and not the recipient. When excessive gifts are given, recipients become bit-players in a tableau for someone else’s ego trip.

What is a generous Christmas present?

Two judgements are necessary. Firstly, the generous giver must calculate what she should give and then exceed that. The calculation includes how far social benchmarks should be exceeded. If the ‘going rate’ for a teenage nephew is £50 then £100 is too much. (Is this generous gift a bribe in disguise, trying to  shape future relationships, and is, therefore, manipulation?) £100 should be replaced by, say, £60 a more socially appropriate gift. Generous but not excessive.

Secondly, recipients calculate what’s reasonable. It’s pointless panting for an iPhone from grandad if he ‘shops’ at food banks. Reality informs expectations so they intersect into something which isn’t fantasy. Generosity from this grandad might be a baseball cap. It would be generous because it reflects his economic status and a desire to give any gift at Christmas. A baseball cap exceeds expectations because the realistic expectation is there won’t be a gift of any kind. Generosity means realistic expectations are exceeded.

Christmas presents can be unwelcome because they either are too much or too little. Expectations are unmet or exceeded inappropriately. A rich aunt giving a teenage nephew a pair of socks is being (knowingly?) disappointing. However, if she bought an eBike, that gift flaunts her wealth. Either way the social ‘contract’ related to Christmas presents is shattered.

Social calculation is implicit. Our teenage boy wants an iPhone but knows, and understands, why grandad won’t get him one. He doesn’t resent his grandad because he’s socially aware about socio-economic facts. Grandad is living in poverty and can’t shell out a for a pricy Christmas gift regardless of his desire to look good. People using food banks can’t afford pricy gifts but the calculation is challenging when wealth is ‘smoke and mirrors’.

Wealthy people living in expensive houses might have little or no disposable income because of super-large mortgages.2 Expectations based on visible signs are deceptive. Expectations are heightened and unmet. Blatant poverty is one thing but self-inflicted poverty is difficult to disaggregate by children. The social calculation in this situation is nuanced or, even, impenetrable. Christmas can be very trying for the children of wealthy parents whose peers have wealthy parents with large disposable incomes. Trying to explain to children that they literally can’t afford generous gifts is hard work in a counter-intuitive environment.

Generosity can transform into an arms race and stops being ‘generous’. Gifts become excessive. Excessive is when people lose sight of the meaning of ‘generous’ and think it means an unlimited more. Creating a debt repayment programme to be generous misses the point. Generosity is exceeding expectations which are realistic within your economic environment. A generous gift is appropriately generous and not excessive. And that should be understood by recipients.


1 generous meaning – Search (

2 This is probably naïve as people often try to keep up ‘appearances’ by going into debt People are going into debt thanks to Christmas spending | Metro News

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