The War on Christmas began on a cold winter's day in November 1912. That day, the Society for the Prevention of Useless Gifts (or SPUG for short) was founded in America. This bizarre organization was launched by a group of female saleswomen who were pressured to present their supervisors with costly Christmas gifts with their meagre salaries. A month after the group’s formation, SPUG expanded to include men in their ranks following President Roosevelt’s membership, and later grew to over twenty-five hundred members. Members banded together to form "SPUG Squads" and wore white buttons as an expression of solidarity against what they saw as a distortion of the true meaning of Christmas.
More than a hundred years later, Christmas continues to herald an onslaught of obnoxious advertisements and marketing tactics. Legions of store owners stand poised ready to charge with their festive-themed wares; unguarded consumers surrender helplessly and allow themselves to be swept into the cultural wave of gift-giving.
Increased festive expenditure is not only taking place in western countries. According to Channel News Asia, Christmas spending has been on the rise for Singaporeans: from 2014 to 2015, the amount set aside for Christmas shopping witnessed an 8% increase. Spending on business associates also increased from an average of $207 to $317 in the same period.
Interestingly, the practice of gift giving has not always been a Christmas tradition— it originated from a pagan practice during the Roman winter festival called Saturnalia. During this week-long celebration, social roles were reversed: the wealthy were expected to pay the rent of the poor; dice were rolled to determine “temporary monarchs” within households and executions were barred for a week. Pottery figurines, edible treats and candles were also exchanged as gifts. When the Empire eventually adopted Christianity, Pagan festivals began to be phased out, with Christmas taking Saturnalia’s place in 500AD. The practice of gift-giving, however, endured and was eventually enfolded into the Christmas festival, establishing a biblical parallel to the wise men who bore gifts to the infant Jesus.
A depiction of Saturnalia by Antoine-Francois Callet
It was not until the nineteenth century that consumerism found a foothold in the festival celebrations: gifts that were traditionally presented to the lower classes were now being given to children instead. A poem written in 1823, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, introduced Santa Claus as a “right jolly old elf”. The character’s appeal to children worldwide cemented the growing trend of consumerism during Christmas festivities, which has largely overshadowed Christmas’ true message of love and joy today.
That is not to say that gift giving should be discouraged—the practice can, and should, continue to take place, albeit without excessive spending. There is wisdom in the saying that "it is better to give than to receive." The act of giving itself confers many benefits upon the giver, helping to strengthen bonds and define relationships. The sensation from the act of giving is similar to that of taking care of a pet. Pet owners receive pleasure from caring for their pets, even without the expectation of reciprocation from the animal. Likewise, the act of giving provides one with a unique measure of joy, one that cannot be found anywhere else, even from the receiving end.
The practice of gift giving also acts as a powerful social cue. Selecting a gift is a way for the giver to determine the value that the recipient holds in his life. For instance, a more sentimental gift may be exchanged between partners, whereas old time friends may pick out presents that are related to shared memories or inside jokes. In other words, the act of gift giving is an important social exercise for the giver, one that allows him to establish the identity of the recipient toward himself.
Following SPUG’s inception in 1912, Americans soon recognized the true value of giving. The following year, the organization’s acronym was changed to the milder-sounding “Society for the Promotion of Useful Giving”, promoting the true spirit of generosity. That Christmas, members were encouraged to participate in a drive to help needy families, and a Christmas Party was held in New York where SPUG pledged to provide “useful presents” to all attendees. Some 13 000 New Yorkers showed up, and were rewarded with bags of candy, a 40-foot Christmas tree, as well as a dance party emceed by the city coroner.
Gift-giving is an act that embodies care and love—but too much focus on the materialistic value of presents can quickly take away the joy of giving. Just like Ariana Grande belts out in her 2013 Christmas single, “your heart is the biggest gift you can give anyone…it’s the gift that just won’t disappear.” This festive season, revive the spirit of SPUG; give a gift from your heart!