Dear Santa, no more wish lists

Telling people what you want and knowing what's likely waiting for you under the tree takes away the magic of Christmas

It goes without saying that Christmas is my favourite time of year.

Despite having never celebrated it as a religious holiday, there is something about the traditions of the season - even sans winter in Singapore - which just prompts me to get into the festive mood.

For people who celebrate Christmas for the spirit of the season alone, perhaps its charm lies in its coveted spot at the tail end of the calendar year.

By the time the holidays roll around, we are so worn by the daily grind of the past 359 days that we need little excuse to eat our weight in festive treats.

The seasonal spices don't hurt either. It is amazing how cardamom, cloves, ginger and cinnamon make anything you whip up for your holiday table taste that much more festive.

And then there is the kitschy decor. Even as I write this column, my work desk is covered in all manner of holiday knick-knacks - not limited to a Rudolf hat, a Christmas stocking and strings of fairy lights.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Mostly though, Christmas to me has always been about the presents. Not so much in the materialism of the affair but in the ritual of picking out gifts for my nearest and dearest, done with love and completed in stealth.

The love of present-giving is one I attribute to the magical Christmases I had as a child.

Despite my family not actually celebrating the festival, my parents never stopped us from experiencing it wholeheartedly - taking us on annual treks to see the lights all over the island, for jaunts in the fake soapy snow at Tanglin Mall and to meet many a mall Santa.

A month before Christmas, we would set up our tree - which involved pulling out the misshapen, plasticky branches from storage and rummaging through bags of ornaments and lights till it was decked out beyond belief.

I remember often boasting about it to primary school mates, not because our tree was particularly fancy - it was much more tacky than traditional - but more because, in my six-year-old eyes, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

On the eve, I would stay up as late as I could wrangle, always writing a thank-you letter to Santa and leaving him cookies and milk before bed.

The next morning without fail, the cookies would have been eaten, the milk would have been drunk and Santa would have left a card for me in his distinct messy scrawl. There was magic in those Christmas mornings.

The one thing I never got to do, though, was write a wish list of presents. While I'm sure I must have made my list of toys well known to whoever would listen, my parents never allowed me to dictate what I should get.

In many ways, the magic then was in waking up starry-eyed on Christmas morning, not knowing what had materialised for me under the tree.

Some years, it was exactly what I had hoped for. Other years, it was something better than anything I could have fathomed.

Whatever the presents were, I was always grateful beyond belief.

I did eventually outgrow Santa, but the one thing I never managed to shake was the love for Christmas surprises.

Now that I have a pay cheque and do more present buying than receiving, just the thought of those laughing, surprised faces when presents are ripped open is, in many ways, the best part of Christmas for me.

In recent years though, part of my love of the gift exchange has been marred by the rise of the wish list.

Now that we're in the era of online registries, I have found myself in Whatsapp groups and e-mail chains among people who have already compiled an itemised inventory of things they hope to receive on Christmas morning.

"Here are my top five gifts, just in case anyone wanted to get me something," read one e-mail I received earlier this year.

Another friend from school texted to say she'd rather us know what she wanted, rather than get something she had no use for.

These days, even online sites that facilitate Secret Santa gift-exchanges come with the option of a gift registry of sorts.

You can now put in your gift preferences to make life easier for whoever is buying your present - down to a link of the actual product in the right brand, colour and size - because heaven forbid you receive something you didn't explicitly request.

In some ways, I get it. People are practical and we've all been on the receiving end of an ugly tea towel or a generic mug that will likely collect dust in a corner of our homes.

There is also the problem of that friend who seems absolutely impossible to shop for.

And how can we forget the pesky re-gifter - the sort of acquaintance who puts in no thought into presents or cards and is likely to pawn off aforementioned, useless clutter to his next unsuspecting victim.

But despite it all, for me, the advent of the wish list takes away from the spirit of Christmas itself, making it in many ways more transactional than traditional.

While writing to Santa in the North Pole might have been cute when you were five, doing the same thing when you are 25 just seems like handing someone a grocery list.

Personally, the thought of telling someone exactly what I want makes me uncomfortable - mainly because the whole thing reeks of a culture of entitlement.

After all, the spirit of the season is in the giving - be it big or small, material or otherwise.

Success or failure of the holiday should not hinge on how accurately one guesses another's present preferences.

And doesn't having dictated your present in advance negate the joy of wrapping up items and exchanging them in the first place?

After all, where is the magic in Christmas if you already know items one to five on your wish list are likely waiting for you under the tree?

So this Christmas, I'm bucking the wish-list trend and curating the presents and cards I write the way I always do it - on my own terms.

Sure, it's possible that not everyone will like what they receive, but my loved ones can be assured that I put a fair amount of thought and love into whatever it is I give them.

And to everyone else, I say, don't stress out about gift exchanges with friends, family, colleagues or acquaintances.

Sure, you might not know what you're going to get, but in the grand scheme of things, should that even matter?

Sit back, eat some festive fare and allow yourself to be surprised. There is a joy in giving and receiving without demand or dictation - that's the spirit of the season we should never outgrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 25, 2016, with the headline 'Dear Santa, no more wish lists'. Print Edition | Subscribe