Cautionary Tales – The Company That Canceled Christmas

More than 100,000 families – many of them among Britain’s poorest – have set aside money for Christmas presents and other seasonal foods at a savings club called Farepak. It wasn’t a bank, it wasn’t great value for money…and it went bankrupt. Children went without toys, festive dinner tables were left bare.

Why would someone put their hard-earned money into such a scheme? And what does it tell us about the way we view Christmas as a time of frantic spending?

Cautionary Tales written by myself, Tim Harford, and Andrew Wright. Produced by Ryan Daily, with support from Courtney Guarino and Emily Vaughn.

Sound design and original music by Pascal Weiss. Julia Barton edited the scripts.

Thanks to the Pushkin Industries team, including Mia Lubell, Jacob Weisberg, Heather Fine, John Schnarz, Carly Migliori, Eric Sandler, Emily Rostic, Roston Biserv, Maggie Taylor, Nicole Morano, Daniela Lakhan, and Maya Koenig.

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Further reading and listening

Much of Joel Waldfogel’s research on Christmas economics is collected in his concise and witty book, Scroogenomics.

In describing the Fariback case, I relied on reporting by Anna Burnside in The Sunday Times (16 December 2007), Steve Bird in The Times (15 November 2006), Chris Tighe in the Financial Times (11 November 2006), and Adam Jones in the Financial Times (16 November 2006). 2012), Robert Jones in The Guardian (18 April 2022) and Rob Sharp in The Observer (19 November 2006). The Center for Crime and Justice Studies, along with Unison, interviewed Farepak customers after the company’s collapse. Penelope Fisman’s letter was published in the Financial Times on December 30, 2006.

Academic research on the different perspectives taken by donors and recipients is:

Francesca Gino, Frances J. Flynn, Give Them What They Want: The Benefits of Honesty in Gift Exchanges,
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 47, Issue 5, 2011.
Francis J. Flynn, Gabriel S. Adams, Money Doesn’t Buy Love: Disproportionate Beliefs About Gift Price and Feelings of Appreciation, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 45, Number 2, 2009.

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