Here’s a question for you: is it all right to give money as a gift?
If your answer is an immediate, unqualified Yes, then don’t read on. You’ll probably find the rest of this post needlessly convoluted and pedantic. But if your gut tells you that there’s something wrong with handing over cash on someone’s birthday or at Christmas, then join the club.
A book I recently read stated that most moral stands are essentially irrational: they’re instincts formed in the emotional part of the brain which then commissions the logical part to come up with seemingly sensible – but ultimately weak – arguments to justify the sentimental response. That’s why, if you try to break down many long-held moral values – such as ‘lying is wrong’ – you eventually arrive at an exasperated cry of, “Because it just is!” And maybe that’s also the reason for my total inability to come up with a truly non-emotional reason to support my strong feelings on the matter of money and presents.
Perhaps it’s partly to do with culture and upbringing: I don’t remember ever getting cash for a birthday. But delve a little deeper into memories and complexities appear. Whilst it wasn’t permissible to give money for birthdays and Christmases, it was obligatory to do so for various Eid celebrations and for Persian New Year. Go figure.
Maybe it’s because money seems cold and impersonal. ‘I can’t think of a gift that’s got your name on it, so I’ll just hand over the sum I’d intended spending on you.’ But what if the recipient actually asks for money? Surely ‘cold and impersonal’ no longer apply, because money is what’s specifically – and personally – been requested.
Maybe, in my mind, money is something you earn for doing a job, whereas a gift is something someone would like to give you because – fundamentally – they’d like to make a statement about their relationship with you. If the word used to make that statement is ‘cash’, then, in my opinion, the relationship is vulgarised and is, perhaps, reduced to some kind of corporate contract.
But the business of earning money casts its own complication over this issue, because many people have a personal rule that they will give the gift of money to people who aren’t earning (ie children, usually) but they won’t do so to people who are gainfully employed. There may be some logic at work there, but I suspect it’s pretty flimsy.
And when you start talking about earning money, then you’re knee-deep in all kinds of social awkwardness and potential faux pas, because very few things screw us up and embarrass us as much as the green stuff. Attitudes to discussing wages and salaries have changed in the UK over the years, but I’m told that in France it is still considered incredibly crude to reveal and chat about one’s income. Contrast this with India, where one of the first three questions you’re asked by strangers is, “And how much are you earning?”
So where does this leave me? Well, certainly with lots of wrapping of parcels which are unashamedly thicker than banknotes. The fact is that I really and truly dislike – and feel cheapened by – the thought of Father Christmas turning into a reindeer-powered ATM… but I can’t really tell you why. It just feels wrong.