I'm not going to send any Christmas cards or give people presents this year. Instead I'm sending the money I would have spent to charity, and letting all my friends know by email. A couple of them have been really keen on the idea, but my daughter is unhappy and says she thinks it is a very controlling thing to do. I haven't yet made any donations. Do you think I should stick to my guns, or has my daughter got a point?
Yours sincerely, Nell
If you expect to get any support from me, I'm afraid you've come to the wrong place. I get apoplectic even if I get an email from an anonymous firm saying they're not sending me a card because they're giving their Christmas card budget to charity. How dare they make a decision on my behalf! I've been tempted to write to them and ask if I can opt out of their wretched scheme, or if the money they would have spent on a Christmas card can be sent to me, all 45p's worth or whatever, and then I will decide whether I want to spend it on myself on send it to a charity of my choice.
Recently, as a token of appreciation for a talk I gave to a Jewish organisation – great fun, by the way – I was presented with a certificate that announced that "Trees had been planted in Israel in the name of Virginia Ironside!" But maybe I don't want trees planted in Israel! Maybe I want trees planted somewhere else! Maybe I don't want trees planted anywhere at all! Again, I felt like saying: "Dig them up at once, and I'll plant them in my garden, use them for logs or, perhaps, give them to some other charity. Or I might plant them in Israel! I don't know at the moment. Really sweet of you to give me the trees, but don't plant them in your own garden before I've even had a chance to look at them!"
Nell, if you want to give money to charity, that's your choice. If you then want to write to people saying "I've spent so much on charity I've got nothing left over to buy you a present", then again, that's fine. But to give money that you were going to give to them to charity is so cheeky it's well-nigh irresponsible. You might as well say that instead of buying them presents you were spending all the money on financing your daughter's wedding. The charity is entirely your choice, not theirs. And the warm glow you get from writing the cheque and receiving the grovelling letter of thanks from the charity is something that you get, not the people who have been left empty-handed at Christmas.
And who knows if your friends will agree with your choice of charity anyway? I would be furious if my money was given to any kind of medical research. I wouldn't give to the RSPB. I'd be mightily pissed off if it were given to the Church of England. Charity is not just some vague world of goodness. It's incredibly political, and how are you to know that the charities you think are harmless and noble aren't ones that I don't see as vile and corrupt or just plain pointless? There's nothing wrong with not giving anyone anything. There's nothing wrong with giving people tiny tokens instead of the usual overblown gifts. But don't make your friends feel like dumb tools in a process that is just, in the end, designed to make you feel good...
A donation is no gift
By all means don't give cards or presents if you don't want to. By all means make a donation to charity. Just don't try to link the two, as if the donation is effectively your 'gift' to your friends and family. You can't be charitable on another's behalf, and to try to do so comes across as pious and judgemental. All you're really proposing is that you're not going to give any presents or cards this year. That's fine, if it's what you want, but it may be unrealistic to expect other people to be pleased. Your donation is your own affair, not a sop to those who won't be receiving presents.
Ask friends to choose
It would be more diplomatic of Nell to request that her friends nominate their preferred charities, possibly from a shortlist of four or five. She could then make a donation to each one, in keeping with her friends' choices, and inform them of the totals (thus avoiding telling people how much they each 'got').
Charity begins with you
Sorry, but you've got hold of the wrong end of the stick. If you want to be charitable, it's you who should be foregoing presents and cards, not your family and friends. What you're proposing means that you get the gifts and they get a lousy e-mail!
What you should have done is to have sent an email in October saying that this year you don't want any cards and presents, but you would like them all to make a donation to charity instead. Then, unless they tell you they would like you to do the same, you should send them presents and cards as usual. That way the charities will benefit and your friends will again enjoy your generosity.
Buy a goat instead
I think your plan is commendable, and recipients would have to be rather hard-hearted not to appreciate your gesture. However, just saying you have given a certain amount to charity can feel a little soulless, so why not buy a gift from a charity so that they know exactly what their present has paid for?
Something like the Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue is a really fun way of getting people an individual 'gift', such as a goat or school dinners. They receive a card saying what you have bought so the present becomes more personal – and you don't need to send Christmas cards! You could get things that appeal to different people depending on their hobbies. In this age of over-consumerism, when so few people here really need anything, I think getting a useful gift for someone who can put it to good use is a great idea, and I'm sure you friends will agree!
Be really generous
While your idea in itself is a good one, it does appear that the sacrifices are to be made by your nearest and dearest and not by yourself. The way to perhaps remedy this is to donate twice the amount that you would have otherwise spent. Tell your friends that you wish to donate a particular sum in their name as a gift, make sure it is a very generous 'gift' compared to what you would normally spend. In order to share the goodwill, why not ask friends if they have a favourite charity, or suggest a Christmas-based one? If you manage this graciously you may well inspire them to do the same.