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Eye on the News

Harrison Scott Key
The Phosphorescent List
A modest invective against telling people what you want for Christmas
23 December 2008

Ricky, the enigmatic 12-year-old orphan to whom I’d been assigned as a Secret Santa, wanted three things for Christmas: a fleece blanket, some books, and a glow-in-the-dark basketball. The books were easy: The Call of the Wild and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. So was the blanket. The illuminated basketball was the monkey’s paw, and it would not let itself be found. I knew where one could be procured online, but I didn’t have enough time. The gifts were due at the mission in 12 hours. That deadline would crush the Christmas dream of Orphan Ricky. It was the purest kind of Christmas list, unsullied by the material lusts of the middle class or the depraved fantasies of the superrich. And yet I could not fulfill it. I knew that Orphan Ricky would see a gift-wrapped ball and that he would weep with mistaken thanksgiving. Then he would open it to learn that he had received the Christmas Shaft.

As a young child, I was a victim of Christmas catalogs. I would be hypnotized by the sheer mass of the meaty Sears Wish Book when it arrived at our home. My eyes would go spiral, and I would wander into my bedroom with the catalog, a tablet, a pencil, and the focused intensity of an alcoholic locking himself in a public bathroom with a case of Fighting Cock whiskey. I would emerge from my room after a week or more, harried and unwashed, and hand my poor mother a uniquely comprehensive list, several pages long, that must have saddened her. I am sure she prayed for a child who did not indicate SKU numbers on his letters to Santa. “Mom, how much is sales tax in Tennessee?” I would ask, holding her schoolteacher’s calculator. “I think my figures are a little low.”

Through the years, Santa Claus did not seem to be reading my lists. Nevertheless, I continued to draft what amounted to a proposal for a major research grant, complete with attached financials and contact information. The Sears Wish Book was eventually replaced by the equally dreamy Bass Pro Shops catalog. Then it was the Patagonia catalog. Then it was Amazon and ISBN numbers. But the lists remained exhaustive.

My hopes were continually dashed. It’s true that my family always showered me with a yuletide bounty, but their gifts were always a surprise, always unexpected, things that hadn’t made my lists. And so Christmas became a sad affair. The robot would not be the right robot. The jacket would be cotton, not leather. The turtleneck would be, to my chagrin, a mock turtleneck. And I felt mocked. I would slouch back into my bedroom and try to figure out how to make my lists clearer the next year. As I got older, the lists began to take on the form of a Works Cited page from a major study in Continental theology, with page numbers and selected quotations from product descriptions.

Several years ago, I handed one of these exhausting lists to my fiancée, now my wife. She stared at me like I was wearing a hat made of tinsel. “We don’t do Christmas lists in our family,” she said.

“What do you do?” I asked. I pictured them feeding the poor on Christmas day or caroling at a geriatric facility. It all sounded so noble and disgusting. I was offended, and I was confused. And I was still trying to hand her my list.

“I don’t want it,” she said.

“How do you know what to get anybody?”

The gist of her argument was that, if you know people well enough, you should know what to get them. And if you don’t know them well enough, then you probably shouldn’t be getting them gifts.

I persevered, but my lists were briefer, more concise, less like an MLA Works Cited page and more like a Wikipedia Further Reading list. My argument was not without its merits. I was not beyond citing the work of economist Joel Waldfogel and his brilliantly clinical analysis of gifts in the American Economic Review. In his heartwarmingly titled essay, “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas,” Waldfogel pretty much says that when you buy people something they don’t really want, or even something that’s close to what they want but not quite what they want, you destroy value. You take something of intrinsic worth and you vaporize it from the earth. Waldfogel finds that “holiday gift-giving destroys between 10 percent and a third of the value of gifts.” Gallup, in turn, finds that Americans believe they’ll spend about $639 on Christmas this year, which means that every household will take somewhere between $64 and $213 and toss it into the Vortex of Christmas Never. Without lists, that’s what happens. We waste money.

That was my argument, at least. But my wife had a counterargument, and it was this: “You’re a jackass.”

So I stopped. It wasn’t easy. It took faith. It took patience. It took a lot of subtle hints, like circling items in catalogs, bookmarking pages, and leaving them in prominent places for loved ones, like in their laps, and on their faces while they slept. But eventually, I let it go. My wife and I decided to keep Christmas modest. Very few gifts. One each, maybe two. Even for the children. Instead, we decided to focus our Christmas energies on eating as much cake as possible. I also decided we could do nice things on Christmas, like sing carols to the elderly and infirm. We haven’t yet done that, but to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, just talking about it makes me feel like a better person. And I decided Christmas lists were for the weak and avaricious. They were everything bad about Christmas. They were destroying Western Civilization. To write one was an act of terror.

And then I got Orphan Ricky’s list, the one where all he wanted was a basketball that he could see at night. Ricky wasn’t a greedy boy. Heavens, he’d asked for books! If he hadn’t made a list, who would have known what to get him?

I hurried through the Wal-Mart and found the basketball aisle. My righteous indignation at the moral tragedy of Christmas lists ebbed away. Surely, on this wall of balls, there would be one painted with zinc sulfide or strontium aluminate. I counted no fewer than six models of regulation basketball—none of them phosphorescent. There would be no Christmas miracles for Orphan Ricky. He was getting a plain old ball. He would have to play his sport in the old-fashioned way, with an alternate light source.

I delivered the modest bag of Christmas gifts to the orphanage, burdened with the guilt that I hadn’t been able to make that one simple wish come true. So I affixed a ten-dollar bill to the underside of the ball in its cardboard box. And I prayed that the nuns, or the prison guards, or whoever they were, would let Ricky keep the cash.

Harrison Scott Key is a writer living in Savannah, Georgia.

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