The Time We Lose to Santa Claus (and Hanukkah Harry)
The holidays bring heaps of invisible labor, but we can do less—or do it better.
Posted December 7, 2018
We’ve reached the season of lights and merriment. Which also means we’ve reached the season of invisible labor.
Every year we hear about the huge outlays of money on holiday gifts as a boost to the economy. But what about the huge outlays of time and energy?
I’m not the first to notice the irony of our singing about Santa Claus’s “making a list and checking it twice.” We celebrate Santa’s list-making, but the actual, endless Christmas admin is done by zillions of parents and other givers—many of them women—without recognition or thanks.
And Saturday Night Live’s Hanukkah Harry has been vying to take credit for the 8 nights of Hanukkah admin. Harry’s no competition for Santa yet. But even when the work of gifting isn’t hiding behind a fictional character, we mostly don’t appreciate this work—or even see it.
Making a list of whom to buy for. Deciding what gifts to get and searching for the right versions. Deciding how much to spend and fiddling with finances to afford it. Figuring out what wrapping supplies are needed. Communicating with those thoughtful enough to care what we want as gifts.
All this invisible holiday labor and more is life admin.
Life admin is invisible both in the sense that it often takes place in our minds—as we think and plan—or in our devices—as we make lists or order things. (For more on life admin, and to commiserate with me over broken-technology admin, see this earlier post.)
What if we really started to see the admin of giving gifts?
Paying thoughtful attention to gift admin can help us to save time, give better gifts, or both. Here are 3 of the lessons I’ve learned from years of admin interviews and conversations:
1. For starters, don’t give people gifts that make them do admin
Don’t give someone a ceiling fan they have to get installed. Don’t give small children toys that require batteries—without sending along batteries. And as a parent, I beg you: Don’t send kids toys or devices that require adults to spend hours setting them up.
If you can’t be bothered to do the admin associated with a gift, give something else. Unless, of course, you know the receiver is the kind of person who has a box of assorted batteries in his closet. (Also a good admin-savings strategy.) Or unless you’re going to be there, when the gifts are opened, to offer to do the set-up admin yourself.
2. Find ways to save admin time—and add meaning
I know someone whose brother used to send everyone the same gift: the first thing he saw when he walked into his local department store. One year every family member received an iron.
You probably won’t do that. Not least because buying irons in a store and mailing them would be admin-heavy—and costly!
But if this is a year for saving time, you might consider giving something you know and love from the online vendor you find easiest. What do you already spend time choosing carefully for yourself? Be it music, moisturizer, or movies—there is surely a product you have researched extensively.
Or perhaps there’s a cause you know would use the money well. You could donate in honor of friends with shared values—and spare them receiving more stuff.
It might sound thoughtless to give everyone the same gift. But remember that you’ve already put a lot of thought into this area.
If someone in my world knows the best documentary from 2018, or wants to send money to a worthy cause for me, I’d love to get that gift this year.
3. Make your experience of gift admin feel better
And if uniform gifts aren’t your style, try changing how your gift buying feels.
If you like the sounds and smells of stores, then shopping in person might be worth it. Or if you prefer online shopping, try setting aside a special time, with music you love, rather than doing it in the margins of everything else.
Plus, research shows even brief moments of gratitude benefit us. Take a second, around all that shopping, to appreciate how lucky we are to have money to buy gifts, and to have loved ones to give to.
When it’s all done (or even part of it!), reward yourself for the real work involved in shopping and giving.
And if you’re not the one doing the gift admin for your family or friends, tell the person who is that you see how hard they’re working.
This year, let’s all give some extra love to the Doers of gift admin in our lives. We love you, admin Doers. Happy holidays.
© Elizabeth Emens, 2018. All rights reserved.
Emmons, Robert A., & McCullough, Michael E. (2003). "Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 84(2): 377-389.
Frederickson, Barbara. Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life. New York, NY: Three Rivers, 2009: 41–42, 92–93, 186–87.
di Leonardo, Micaela. “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship.” Signs 12(3). Spring 1987: 442–43.