When Santa Claus parades down Thirty-fourth Street, it is the ritual signal or starting gun that launches us into a month long marathon of over-consumption.  We begin to hear that most dreaded and unanswerable question: what do you want for Christmas?

Children have no problem with this question. They have lists of wants, readymade. These days the lists are probably downloaded straight from the web and delivered to Santa Claus by e-mail. But the older we get the harder it is to know what we want. It’s easy enough to root through the closet and discover that you need some socks, or to choose a book or a CD. But what we really want is a huge, terrifying, existential question, and most of us don’t like to think about it.

E.B.White, a fine writer, has a short story called “The Second Tree from the Corner,” in which he seems to answer the question like this: we do know what we want and it is so inexpressible, so unfathomable, that we can never quite see it clearly, let alone say it in words or get it gift-wrapped from Macy’s. This seems to me very perceptive, and explains why we have to invent things to want that then turn out to be unsatisfying.

What do I want? Well, I want to be better at what I do. If I could write stories or essays like E.B.White, for example, that would be a gift indeed. I want to be smarter, younger, braver, and not least taller. These would all be great gifts, but still, they are only shadows of something else that I don’t have a name for. Would all these gifts combined make me happy, or would I still long for that something else? Was E.B. White happy, as one of the most celebrated writers of his time? Would he have been made happier by a new tie, or a travel alarm clock?

It’s an insoluble problem. If we don’t know what we want ourselves, how can we possibly guess what other people want, even those nearest and dearest to us? Gift cards have become popular in the past few years, but this simply tosses the smoking bomb into the hands of the recipient, who then has to worry about what they want. Charitable gifts are a possible way out, although a bit of a cheat because no wrapping is required. Last year my wife gave me a fine flock of ducklings destined for a village in Africa. I hope they’re having a good time there. I was tempted to respond this year with a hippopotamus, but I fear that the supply of hippopotami in Africa, gift-wrapped or not, may exceed the demand.

Really efficient people ignore the whole impossible question of who wants what. They save all the gifts they receive in their original packaging, along with a careful note of the giver, and then simply pass them on to someone else the following year. In a recent survey sixty-four per cent of the respondents admitted that they passed gifts along like this, and got away with it. If your flow of incoming gifts more or less matches your flow of outgoing gifts you could achieve a steady state, and never have to go to the mall at all.

It will never happen, of course. Shopping is too addictive. Ebenezer Scrooge is the emblematic figure of Christmas, not because he was a miser but because he was scared straight just in time, before the shops closed, and began buying gifts like a madman. That’s the true spirit of Christmas, as any decent ghost will tell you. It’s not what you want, it’s what you give that counts.