Christmas is traditionally a time of over-indulgence and over-spending, but in these tough times, we should keep it simple, says Liz Fraser
Britain is undergoing the worst economic shock since World War II, bar the day I got my last tax bill. If you need proof of this dire financial situation, just pop into your nearest town centre.
For the next few weeks, in the long, relentlessly jolly run-up to the cash-fest known as Christmas, it will be impossible to go anywhere near a shop after 9.05am, thanks to the throngs of red-faced, bag-laden shoppers all desperately trying to part with money they don’t have.
Struggling to get out of the shops with their armfuls of obligatory festive purchases, they can’t spend their non-existent cash fast enough. And this is after they’ve doled out a tenner on car parking, a fiver on coffee to keep their energy levels up, and fifty quid on online purchases for family abroad.
We really are skint. And Christmas is the traditional time of year to pretend we’re not. Except, of course, that for many, pretending isn’t going to work.
Thousands of families are facing a very real choice between keeping the house warm and buying another stocking-filler for the children. Between Christmas dinner and a present for the grandchildren. Faced with a barrage of glitzy adverts, catalogues and ever mounting pressure from the playground for this year’s ‘must-have’ item, saying ‘no’ is very difficult indeed for many parents.
But with most presents on our children’s wish lists rarely dipping under the £20 mark, and often eye-wateringly more than that in the teenage market, saying ‘no’ becomes unavoidable. It’s less bah-humbug and more, ‘I’m sorry, we just cannot afford it’.
Not being able to afford a treat is one thing, but many families are having to go without the basics now, and making their children feel special this Christmas is a source of huge stress for many.
Save the Children launched a campaign in September 2012 called UK Child Poverty. Its survey of 5,000 parents and 1,500 children aged between eight and 16, across all economic groups, found that poverty is hitting UK families hard. According to head of UK policy Chris Welling, children are increasingly aware of this stretch, and the effect it’s having on their parents.
‘One of the most striking things we discovered in our survey was the extent to which children are aware of the financial strain their parents are under, and are sharing this burden,’ says Welling. ‘Over half of children in poverty say they realise money worries make their parents unhappy or stressed, and more than 40 per cent say they know their parents are cutting back on things for themselves and making big sacrifices to buy something for their kids. Children are seeing it and feeling it. And Christmas is one of the toughest times.’
For the poorest families it’s a tremendous struggle. But even the middle bracket is feeling the pinch this year, harder than most.
It’s partly a problem of expectation, and our own childhood experience of Christmas. In families where Christmas is a time when children are showered with presents and every whim is indulged, it can be especially hard suddenly to cut back to a lump of coal and a satsuma.
Christmas in my family was always a fairly simple, frugal affair. My parents never spent what they didn’t have, and I was always happy with just the coal; a satsuma was a considerable bonus.
The first question my mother asked on Christmas morning was, ‘How many potatoes will you want with your turkey – one or two?’ The turkey itself generally looked as if it had been killed by starvation, but there was still some meat left on the breast, if you were quick enough, once you’d wolfed down that half a potato.
I’m exaggerating, of course (it was a whole potato).
By contrast, when I spent my first Christmases with my husband’s family I was shocked by what I considered to be ghastly over-indulgence. We ate too much, drank too much, spent too much… and our children were given so many presents they couldn’t appreciate any of them.
Such extravagance made me deeply uncomfortable, and it caused much grief between us. I don’t want our children to think they have to have a thousand presents in order to be happy, or to expect to get so many things. My husband, on the other hand, thinks Christmas is a time to let go, go mad and spoil them.
Somewhere in the middle is our old friend Compromise, whom we now invite to stay with us at Christmas time.
We give one main present to each of our children, and this is topped up by presents from grandparents, aunts and uncles and so on into a jolly pile of generosity and festive fun. It’s enough, that way. They don’t need more.
This year the stockings might rely a little more heavily on the coal for padding. We all have to live within our means, and it’s only when children start to expect more than they can have that the trouble starts – both for us as parents and for them as they go forth into their independent lives.
Keep it simple this year. Get a double sherbet dip and a satsuma. Your children will understand, and be no worse off for it.