Why the Best Present Is Cold, Hard Cash

A cash-stuffed envelope fits nicely under even the smallest Christmas tree. P Maxwell Photography/Shutterstock

As kids, it didn't take us long to realize that some of those big, gaudy boxes under the Christmas tree were elaborate deceptions.

Sure, one might contain a Castle Grayskull. Or even — dared I hope? — an Atari 2600. But often, a mischievous parent or relative of ill-repute would wrap a small box in an even bigger box.

We'd spend that morning peeling back cardboard layers to successive sighs of disappointment.

Gee, thanks for the tiny Tonka toy tucked in a box that could have held a Big Wheel.

And so we soon learned to look past those pretty lies — and straight to the plain white envelopes my grandmother doled out from honest, hard-working hands.

We didn't even have to open the card. Just a little shake — and the best Christmas present ever would slip right out: cold, hard cash.

Grandma, who was actually an Italian nonna, got a kiss. I got a comic-book buying spree.

And she always accounted for inflation or the cost of living or whatever. So we'd later get $25. And then $40. No one did Christmas better or more sensibly than nonna.

So why do so many people still spend so much time wading through a sea of frenzied humanity in overheated malls being brain-drilled by Christmas jingles to buy people presents they really don't care about?

Sociologists have long argued that giving presents — real objects, not cash — are how people bond with each other. Someone gives you a sweater of dubious aesthetic charm so that you will remember that person. And you will give that person something equally valuable — and equally useless.

The exchange of flower-patterned leg warmers for a decorative candle is actually the formal recognition that two individuals have formed a social bond.

It turns out even a badly knit pillow cover can knit us all together.

The thing is, much of the research on gift-giving was conducted in the early half of the 20th century. Back then, social networks had to be reinforced with fruitcake and books and cheese wheels. Nowadays, our social networks are just as easily reinforced with a "Like" button.

So why not liberate ourselves from the antiquated, wasteful and downright oppressive cycle of gift-giving?

Why don't we just fork over cash and be done with it?

A very excited woman receiving a Christmas gift.
The gift of cash means never having to feign enthusiasm for something you don't care about. gpointstudio/Shutterstock

Another 20th century sociologist, Theodore Caplow, came up with some possible reasons for that after studying gift-giving traditions in a small Indiana town.

Gift-giving, he concluded, is tightly bound by unspoken rules. And cash gifts are only acceptable under very specific circumstances.

For his research, Caplow studied gift-giving traditions in the small town of Muncie, Indiana.

He concluded, as The New Republic notes, that "participants in this gift system should give (individually or jointly) at least one Christmas gift every year to their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters; to the current spouses of these persons; and to their own spouses."

Money could only be gifted, he added, when the giver was older than the recipient.

So nonna was abiding by that unwritten rule when she stuffed envelopes with cash. But certainly, we wouldn't be expected to give her the contents of our piggy banks in return.

It seems, however, that Americans are finally easing up on those rules. At least, in a mushy half-hearted way. Instead of objects, gift cards now top the list of most requested holiday presents.

But unfortunately, that stinks for pretty much everybody.

Gift cards, as Cassie Werber sagely surmises in Quartz, are the worst of both worlds. No one is going to remember you for that beautiful Ikea gift card you gave. And what's more, you're still limiting the recipient to a very specific store with very specific rules, and often, an expiration date.

"Gift cards are worse than imperfect," Werber writes. "They're money-wasting, impersonal, and restrictive in ways we have learned to accept, but which aren't truly helpful and don't make sense."

A little girl kissing her grandmother.
The only gift grandma expects in return for that Christmas envelope is a little love. De Visu/Shutterstock

Which brings us back to nonna and the unbridled smiles her cash gifts brought to chubby-cheeked grandchildren.

Maybe at the time, I didn't think of huge-hearted nonna as I whirred through the pages of "Rom: Space Knight." But I would eventually grow up and realize this this woman's legacy was perfectly aligned with a holiday spirit that's easily lost today — she wanted to bring happiness to the people she loved so dearly.

The only gift she expected in exchange was a kiss. And maybe we might let her pinch one of those aforementioned chubby cheeks.