The Spirit of Christmas

I was busy the past few weeks, as the quarter was ending and many team projects were due.

But, with the winter break, I’m glad to have had more time to relax and read :)  And I’ve been reading a great book this past week, Michael Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy”, which I will write more about in a subsequent post.

With Christmas around the corner, wife and I decided to send packages home.  Somehow, the idea of receiving a package in the mail seems quite exciting (at least we think so!), regardless of what’s in it.

Having said that, choosing a gift can be a challenge nowadays, given how global we have become.  There are very few things that one cannot find back home in Singapore!

Fortunately, we did find some local chocolates and cookies which we’ve never seen back home, so we promptly built up a stockpile of these to send as Christmas gifts.  And we spent a whole afternoon packing and sealing these, and writing notes and cards for them.

This morning, we headed to the post office to mail them.  The post office is always packed with people during Christmas season.  The queue was long, but we figured it should not take more than half an hour.

When we reached the counter, we were told we had to repack all our gift boxes because the postal service does not accept the masking tape that we had used to seal all our packages!

So…  We had to take all our packages to a corner of the post office and take them apart, and repack them in the USPS postal boxes and seal them with the USPS packing tape.  It took a long time to do so, including filling out many sets of custom forms.  End to end, we spent 2 hours at the post office!

The postage didn’t come cheap too.  I estimate it’s 4 to 5 times the cost of the chocolates and cookies?  In fact, the lady at the counter jokingly remarked, “These must be the most expensive chocolates and cookies ever!” 

And she’s probably right! :P

I was reminded about something I read in Michael Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy”.  It was about Christmas and gifts.  Sandel writes that the most economically efficient gift is cash, because people can use it to buy the things they value most.  However, sending cash makes many people feel “degraded” about the Christmas experience, so a new industry has emerged around gift cards (e.g. Amazon, iTunes).  Somehow, they are more acceptable as gifts, than cash.

I contrasted the Christmas gift card idea and our experience.  The gift card would have been swift and neat.  You key in the receiver’s details and click send.  You can probably settle it in 5 minutes or less.  And the economists would also consider it highly efficient, because $100 in gift card value would translate to $100 worth of products that our friends would choose to spend on.  Contrast this to the amount of time we spent shopping (and possibly buying something people don’t want), spending an afternoon to pack and seal them the first time, only to spend two more hours at the post office queuing, repacking and then paying 4 to 5 times in excess of the value of the gift.

Sounds like a whole lot of money and effort relative to the actual dollar value of the gift that our friends would receive?  To this, I would agree.

Yet this seeming irrationality may be explained by a Chinese saying, “千里送鹅毛 物轻情意重”, which translates literally to “sending goose feathers over a thousand miles – the goods are light but the meaning is heavy”.  In this case, the meaning and the spirit of Christmas is also about the trouble we take, and the inefficiencies we go through (money and time).  If these turn out to be the most expensive chocolates and cookies ever, maybe that’s what make them special!  In an age where money can buy almost anything, what we go through is something that money cannot buy.  And if we bothered to go through all that trouble and expense to honor some great friendships, those are also cherished relationships that money cannot buy :)

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