Apptitude: Deck your iPhone with the Christmas List app

Virginia Heffernan

By Virginia Heffernan

It’s Hanukkah. This is the stretch of the calendar known as “the holidays,” famous these days mostly for being a Source of Tremendous Anguish to all who encounter it.

Once, long ago, maybe in the days of the Maccabees or Jesus, the winter holidays brought childlike joy; we’d light some candles against the darkness. But in the past century some Grinchy preachers and op-ed columnists decided to stake out Christmastime as serotonin-deprivation time, and family dysfunction time, and bankruptcy-alcoholism-airport-snafu time. Since then, plain Christmas joy—the easy-won kind—has been in short supply. Ah, well.

Wistfulness: That’s still OK in December, isn’t it?

Which brings me to the Christmas List. In 2012, a Christmas list is not something transcribed from the Sears catalog onto 17 pages of lined notebook paper. The Christmas List is an app. An app for making Christmas lists—and planning to fulfill them. It’s for wishing and half-granting wishes then using the power of the Internet, which really is a lot more magical than Santa ever was, even in his heyday, if you—for this split second—are open to some seasonal wide-eyed wonder.

The app icon looks like a wrapped-up present: a white box with red ribbons on it, and it’s happy-making. I love the way apps on the iPhone now come marked “new” when you haven’t used them yet. That “new” plus the wrapped-gift gave me a little thrill.

You import from your contact list all the people you want to buy presents for. I started with two friends, and grabbed their contact info—including photos—in an instant from my phone, which is already loaded with people’s Facebook details.

Now I have faces and names to budget for. Budget for? That’s right! It’s ingenious. I’d never thought to cap my spending for any one person, or allot anything. Usually I end up getting monstrously big gifts for 3 to 4 people, chosen kind of at random, and then punk out on everyone else. Either nothing or a vague promise of dinner out.

I’m not proud of this, but when I saw that “budget” option—and you put in the budgeted figure right under the person’s photo, so you’re inspired—I realized there was another, better way. Ten dollars, I entered for one friend. The app did not judge me as miserly!

I wanted to get my $10 friend a Kindle book, but then—lo and behold—The Christmas List did not have an option of shopping on Amazon. That’s right. The humongo online megastore was not in the stores listed. I mean, I could enter it optionally. But it wasn’t on the default list. Anthropologie, Best Buy, J.Crew all were. So were Macy’s and Williams-Sonoma and PetsSmart and Starbucks and Tiffany & Co. Maybe 50 in total, with some surprising omissions, like e-commerce giants Amazon and Overstock.

What’s there are evidently the great American retailers. If you weren’t thinking about these stores before you try the Christmas List, you will be afterward. (I wonder if they paid for placement.) In the end, when I made my list, I ended up adding Amazon, Overstock and Urban Outfitters to the options.

By then I had seen—double lo and behold—the App Store as an option. Could it be that the Christmas List favored Apple products? And I was drawn in. An app! I could buy someone an app for Christmas!

You’re asked to price the objects you want to buy, because the app doesn’t let you go directly to the store sites. (I’d probably never come back, so that makes sense.) I imagine the whole list works best as something you carry around with you to brick-and-mortar stores.

It did feel immensely satisfying to check off the items on everyone’s list, while staying in my budget. I got a gift certificate from Anthropologie for a teenager I know, and the neat check I got to put in the “purchased” box was worth the 99 cents for the app.

As was the sense of virtue and organization and generosity! The elegant Christmas List app proves to be a gift for the giver. And it makes buying gifts in December without overspending seem not depressing, not chumpy and not impossible. Astounding.

Now if only apps could wrap.