IT’S the thought that counts, so we’re told. The actual gift doesn’t matter. But try telling that to a child on Christmas morning after they’ve ripped the wrapping off a pair of socks.

I’ve been thinking about the spirit of giving since collating The National’s St Andrew’s Day list of festive food, toy and gift appeals. Following the progress of these collections online, it’s truly heartening to see the response.

I expect most of those who participate are not wealthy – research has consistently found those with less money are more generous than those with plenty – but these secret Santas put a huge amount of thought, time and care into sourcing their donations for children whose families struggle at this time of year.

In light of this, it feels horribly uncharitable to question whether the festive goodwill could be channelled in a slightly different direction. However, I can’t help but wonder if a collection of generic gifts, chosen purely on the basis of a child’s age and sex, might bring less cheer than a modest cash donation which could be used by a parent or carer to buy an item or two specially requested from Santa.

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There’s something instinctively appealing about non-cash appeals, from the point of view of the giver. If you enjoy nothing more than a mooch around the shops (even in December), it feels satisfying to hand-pick gifts for strangers,

putting as much thought and care into these selections as you would when buying for your own small people and their friends. But therein lies a problem – you’ll have at least a vague idea what the children you know might like.

Of course you can do some research into toy and fashion trends – I believe Harry Potter Lego and dinosaur Fingerlings are all the rage this year, along with pooping unicorns (yes, really) and anything that can be “unboxed” in the dramatic fashion popularised by YouTube – but there’s no telling whether any particular child will be excited to receive these items.

The National:

Not every 12-year-old girl likes mermaids and make-up, and not every eight-year-boy likes football and farts (I regret to inform you that someone has this year launched “the first fart-related game that produces sounds and smells”, which takes the form of a sheepish-looking plastic dog with its bottom in the air).

While rummaging through cupboards at my mum’s this week, I came across an old diary. Flicking through the sporadic entries served as a powerful reminder of my priorities – some might say preoccupations – at the age 10¾. The entries are brief, no more than 100 words per page, but it seems barely a day went by that summer when I wasn’t thinking about Trolls.

On June 7 I went on a day trip and took my Trolls along for the ride. One June 8 some relatives visited from the US and gave me a $20 bill, which I resolved to spend on Trolls (the account of their visit consists entirely of a list of gifts they gave us). On June 9 I played with Trolls with my friend Rona and on June 10 I spotted a new range of Trolls in a shop window. On June 12 Rona acquired a punk Troll, and I can still vividly recall the cast of fluffy-haired characters on her special Troll shelf.

The Troll references ease off a bit after that, then the diary is abandoned for a few weeks, but entries resume again in July, when I noted: “Left for holidays and eventually got to Chester where I saw lots of Trolls and Playmobil.” They say travel broadens the mind, but apparently it only increased my insatiable appetite for toys.

I’m pretty sure I received one more Troll for my birthday in September that year, but the evidence suggests my obsession was more or less over by then. My very optimistic birthday wish list included a mountain bike (received), remote-controlled car, netball, doll craft kit and “IBM”.

Pocket-sized Trolls weren’t very expensive, and given the many hours of joy they brought me they were clearly worth every penny. Times may have moved on but troll fads still explode every now and then, and despite the wealth of gadgets and gizmos geared at pre-teens there’s always space in the market for low-priced pocket pals of some description.

The National:

We’ve all received unwanted gifts, from childhood onwards, and it’s part of growing up to learn about smiling and saying thank you even when your heart’s not in it. But I’m sure no-one donating to toy appeals would like to imagine theirs would be the gift that elicited a dutiful thank you rather than a gasp of joy. Children aren’t daft, and will twig that their gift wasn’t picked out with them in mind.

Perhaps some would consider it greedy or somehow less magical to be asked to buy a specific toy or gift (or even given a general pointer towards a particular range or category), and I appreciate that the small charities co-ordinating these appeals will be a) already stretched to the limit and b) wary of soliciting individual requests in case they cannot be delivered.

So surely it’s now time for major retailers to play their part, by hosting wish lists and pledging to ensure every child from a family in need at Christmas receives something special – not just a generic gift from a well-meaning person taking their best guess.

We can never avoid the situation where some children receive a handful of gifts and others obscene piles (there’s no hiding the evidence that Santa is more generous to some than others), but can we help sprinkle just a little more magic?