The Digital Wish List

Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash.

When I was a kid we carefully wrote our Christmas lists in pen and paper, doodling and adding glitter in the corners. Then we burned them, to let the smoke signals be interpreted by the delicate nostrils of Santa’s reindeers. Or perhaps they were being transcribed by Kris Kringle’s mystical ability to diagnose kids’ desires from the crumpled ashes of their wish lists. Neither variation was confirmed or denied, or even implied; unlike a lot of things I questioned as a child, this wasn’t one of them.

While we favored conversing directly with the chimney, other kids trusted the postal system to send their letters to the North Pole. My parents obviously thought this was a waste of a stamp. Modern parents appear to have the same opinion, as the post office has seen a dramatic decrease in letters sent to Father Christmas. Today, children send email.

The annual wish list, carefully curated on paper, read aloud, and then ceremonially burned was one of those tiny Christmassy events of my childhood that has been slowly eroded—first with the transition to adulthood, and then with the creation of the digital wish list. Even before the first festive coffees are in store, someone in my family sends out an email announcing that Christmas lists are needed.

As an adult, email has become the customary way of gathering our family’s wishes, with the added requirement of harassing family members to tell us what they want. This can turn to nagging—and always, it seems, Dad is last to send his list, possibly in consultation with Mum to ensure he writes anything at all.

The benefit of the emailed wish list is you can follow up with family members: check who got what, who wants to share certain items, and confirm what’s left on the list. Unfortunately my brother’s repeated use of the Reply All function meant we had to bring WhatsApp into negotiations; a supposedly safer place. That led us to the great Father’s Day kerfuffle: within hours of being added to the group conversation, my dad was dramatically kicked out, as my brother had once again revealed to the entire group what we had agreed to get.

The lists themselves can be pretty helpful: bullet points, with direct links and discount codes, to ensure other family members buy the right thing at the lowest possible price. While previously I might have been indirect, this year I did a pre-emptive strike and sent out Black Friday deals. I wasn’t prepared to splash out on discounted Body Shop face masks, but perhaps someone in my family might? But when I forwarded on my Wolf and Badger marketing about the price-dropped items on my online wish list, I got rebuked that these aren’t “real Christmas presents,” and that I “didn’t really want them.” Which in reality means we didn’t want to get them for you.

The other bane of the adult holiday wish list is that they can be really boring. We’ve moved from the wholly impractical and somewhat mysterious gifts, to the possibly overly practical and down-to-earth. Naming no names, but someone has an electric blanket on their list this year, and it’s not one of my parents. Suddenly socks, once considered a crappy present, appear regularly on people’s lists. I don’t feel particularly warm and fuzzy about giving the great gift of socks.

The magic of the season has started to feel like a chore when you have to badger someone for what they want and, in truth, feel dissatisfied with the answer. What once was a joy has now become a little tedious, and it makes me somewhat rebellious—maybe I don’t want to be told what to get you, even if it does come with a link and a discount code and even if there’s stuff on my list I really hope you’ll get me. My unfortunate family often receive off-list “surprise gifts,” but then so do I, when we’ve all tired of the constraints of the list and the dibs of who gets to give what.

Once the gifts have been parceled out between us, there’s the arranging of payment. Banking details are sent via WhatsApp, texts go back and forth, and transactions and deductions get made. You bought that with me, and I bought that with you, so actually we cancel each other out. Other times we forget to tally up who owes and who is owed, so it has to be deducted from the next round of gift-buying consultations.

While the digital sphere has led to us being more connected, it’s also removed the element of surprise, and the more enjoyable aspect of spending time together (depending on your family). While emailing Santa might be convenient and pretty cheap, sitting down with my parents as a child and crafting a list had a joy that email can’t muster—whether you believe that smoke can reach the North Pole or have faith in the postal service. It also created a lasting memory, which has got to be worth the price of a stamp. While I will remember, and bring up, our family’s WhatsApp and email-related mishaps, they haven’t got the same kind of lasting impact.

As an adult the gifts can be great—especially when they’re something unexpected but wanted. However, what I’m really looking forward to is spending time with family; watching Christmas movies in pajamas and eating and drinking too much. Although it’s clear some gifts are essential (electric blankets, for one thing) we’re often just buying people items they would have easily bought on their own. It seems like charity would be a better use of my cash, while family gets my time.

Emily Cracknell is a freelance writer, screenwriter and poet. You can read more from her at and catch her occasionally on Twitter.

This piece is part of The Billfold’s Holidays and Money series.

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