Making a List

Do you celebrate Christmas? If so, Merry Christmas to you and yours! My family and I celebrate. Like many other people, we open presents on Christmas morning. My kids have just finished opening theirs, and have now moved on to Netflix. So I have a bit of time to reflect.

On my mind this morning? Lists.

Lists are central to the practice of information architecture, and one of the unique aspects of Christmas, as many people celebrate it today, is that it prominently features lists. Several weeks (or in some cases, months) ahead of Christmas Day, children start thinking of gifts they’d like to receive. They make a list. They write it down so they can share it with siblings, friends, parents, etc. and — if the household encourages that sort of thing — with the Fulfiller of Wishes: Santa Claus.

For the child, assembling this list is an exercise in structured fantasizing. “What would I be like if I had this  particular thing in my life? And what about this other thing?” For better or worse, the child starts identifying with the list. Not the things in the list, but the collection itself. One child’s list will be different from another’s; a reflection of their unique personalities through material objects. (I have three kids, and they each make their own lists. When making them, they negotiate to avoid requesting exactly the same things.)

While we are fortunate enough to afford presents, my wife and I don’t like this overly materialistic aspect of the holiday. We do get the children gifts at this time of year (their expectations set by the culture we live in), but we try to keep it simple and minimal. So when our children making their lists, we encourage them to prioritize. “If you had to choose, would you rather have x or y?” The list is a perfect structural construct for this. (Perhaps this is a good way to introduce them to the concept of bubble sorting?)

When Christmas Day comes, the children compare the gifts they’ve received to the lists they made. If there’s too much variance, they may feel slighted — even if the presents they receive are objectively better than the ones they had on the list. The list is a sort of token for their individuality; a structured manifestation of their desires; a reflection of their personality. The child put this highly personal statement into the universe as a concrete artifact that can be verified. Does the universe care? Will it pay heed to who he or she is as a person?

For a child, this list is a big deal.

But that’s not the only prominent Christmas list. There’s another list-maker in this interaction: Santa Claus himself. I’m referring, of course, to the following verse from the classic song Santa Claus is Coming to Town:

He’s making a list
He’s checking it twice
He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

Here we have the Fulfiller of Wishes wielding a taxonomy: Serving as both judge and jury, he’ll determine who will benefit from his largesse. The terms aren’t made clear. What exactly constitutes a transgression? What behavior would risk you landing on the dreaded “naughty” category? Beyond indirect references to the state of your consciousness (“He knows if you are sleeping / He knows if you’re awake”), you don’t know. At least you have some comfort in knowing there’s a process for assuring the quality of the data: Santa is checking the list twice.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town was written in the 1930s, when the U.S. was in the grip of the Great Depression. The song featured a few verses that have since been dropped:

The season is near
For happiness time
Gotta bring cheer with every last dime
Santa Claus is coming to town

We’ve gotta dig deep
And cover the list
Gotta see that nobody is missed
Santa Claus is coming to town

Let’s keep the home-fires burning
Let’s give without a pause
Let’s prove to those less fortunate
That there is a Santa Claus

In these verses, the onus of generosity shifts from the Fulfiller of Wishes onto all of us: It is we who must “dig deep” to ensure everybody in the list is taken care of. A beautiful thought — one more fitting with the spirit of the season.