The Christmas tree is packed away, we’ve eaten the last portion of turkey, and the Christmas cards have been swept off the mantlepiece. But while many of us move on to our Veganuary diets and new year resolutions, some of us are still dealing with Christmas. For those struggling with debt and trying to make ends meet, Christmas is more than one day a year, it’s an ongoing struggle.
We know that Christmas is a time for loose wallets. From the time the gates open on Black Friday to the last mince pie on Boxing Day, the UK is a nation of big festive spending – in fact the largest in Europe 1. The average UK household spends £299 on gifts and £143 on food and drink, and that’s before we add in the endless Christmas parties and activities we get roped into 2. It’s just another Secret Santa, just another mulled wine with mates, just one more stocking filler.
Last Christmas saw a shift in consumer attitudes towards the festive season. Growing concern around climate change means that, as The Guardian puts it, “Britons are now dreaming of a green Christmas” 3. We’ve seen a rise in eco-friendly alternatives, from gifting time in place of presents – our presence is the present, to “re-gifting” unwanted and unused past gifts. My own Christmas was more eco-friendly this year; my housemate sewed me a personalised tote bag with her own loving hands, and I reused giftwrap from previous years (I’m sure nobody noticed the random creases). At 2CV we also got involved by “upcycling” Christmas decorations and buying necessities for refugees at the Choose Love pop-up rather than hitting the shops on Black Friday. The push-back on an over-commercialised and wasteful Christmas is even leading some to opt out altogether. The phrase “my family aren’t doing presents this year” is becoming so common it could one day be the standard Christmas card greeting.
But sustainable Christmas can be a bit of a luxury – the luxury of not spending. Re-gifting or opting out altogether is a trend that mostly favors the ‘well to do’.According to Matthew Sparkes, a sociology lecturer at Cambridge University, “environmentally aware consumers are going to be a middle-class phenomenon at this stage…having the option to opt out [of shopping] is a luxury in itself” 3. There’s not as much pressure to spend if you don’t have to prove that you can.
For the many Britons struggling with debt however, scaling back Christmas feels like less of an option. This is something we know well here at 2CV through our work with consumers on behalf of debt advice organisations. From our face to face research with those in debt we understand that for many, Christmas is the most dreaded day of the year. It’s the day many tell us, that whatever their financial situation, they somehow still have to make special. The credit cards are stretched, the heating is turned off and getting through January is a distant thought as they do all they can to afford the Christmas expectations.
I also see this myself through volunteering in debt advice. Sitting with people from every walk of life who are under the pressure of debt, I’m familiar with that look of Christmas dread. As a support worker in debt advice, often you are the first person to hear about their struggles. Debt often brings with it a sense of shame and a reluctance to talk about it with friends and family. Because their debt is hidden from those around them, many tell us Christmas is a time for maintaining an image and proving they can still deliver. A young guy trying to reciprocate gifts for his siblings, or a mum making sure her kids don’t feel left out when they return to school faced with classmates showing off their new toys.
The festive season is officially over, but many are still dealing with the aftermath of Christmas; the mounting credit card debt, the rent arrears, the reminder letters from utility companies. For some, Christmas was the tipping point, the event that took them from “just getting by” to walking through the door of a debt advice centre. Popular culture may have opted-in to sustainable Christmas, but this growing acceptance still largely excludes those who could benefit from it the most. There is some way to go before sustainable Christmas becomes a cultural norm that everyone can enjoy.