Sustainable Christmas

Right. Here is my Christmas Rant. I am going to go through this at length and I am setting out my thoughts. I am not trying to set out a polemic or start a pointless argument. If you would like to comment, please do me the courtesy of respecting my point of view rather than using the facile and well-trodden path of shouting Scrooge or Bah Humbug. I have come to these downbeat conclusions over a number of years, and I don’t think well-timed visits from men in nighties is going to change my mind much.

Those of you who know me will know I’m not a big fan of organised Christmas activity. There are parts of it that are wonderful. Who wouldn’t like an excuse for a big festive dinner and a bit of a drink, a chance to shut ourselves up with our loved ones and pets for a day, and whirlwind of catching up with our friends and neighbours for a few seasonal parties? I don’t mind putting cards in the post. I even have been known to write a round-robin, and it’s nice hearing back from people telling us what their years have been like.

There are parts that are bleak and dark for me. Gift-giving is one such. I extend this to birthdays too. It would be wonderful if we could have a brief exchange of meaningful gifts – things we have bought for each other because they will make our lives easier or better or happier. Things we know will be appreciated. But I bet most presents most people receive this year won’t fit those categories. They will receive presents that say “I spent a lot of money on you” or that say “I was tearing round the shops at the last minute and this was the last thing on the shelves that even vaguely matches your personality.” I know I have given gifts just like this.

It’s clearly not good. From a purely personal point of view, I live in a cluttered house. I don’t have places to house most of the things I own so they live in piles around me. I don’t like this, but I don’t seem to be able to fix it. I think I have everything I need or want. Consequently there have been years when I come home from gift giving events laden with large consumerist items I have no need of and no place to put. What do I do? I’m not sufficiently singleminded to sling them out, so they join the oppressive clutter bearing down on me.

(Two notable exceptions to this are books and food. Food-parcels have been amongst the best gifts I have received in recent years. And books can at least join some of the slightly better organised clutter in the house. Or read once and set free (as if I could, with my hoarding instincts). But if you’re going to get me food, try not to contribute to my weight problem. And if you’re buying me books, there’s no need to give me new ones. Go and buy used paperbacks by weight, tatty crime novels off Amazon Marketplace for £0.01 + p&p. It’s the same story in ’em!)

That’s the personal aspect of promiscuous gift giving. Now a wider aspect. Think a little about what you see in the shops at this time of the year. Think about what’s being heavily promoted on TV, if you watch much TV. Trawl back through your commercial email, solicited or not, and look at what they’re trying to sell you. Some of it might meet the criteria of good gifts. Much of it is mountains of tat that no-one in their right mind actually wants.

And yet we will be going out in our millions and buying it. Three for two gift sets in Boots that will probably be passed on unopened. Soft toys and strange drinks to be passed on as the raffle prizes no-one will choose. A million different gadgets that will get played with once or twice then sit in a box somewhere, their circuits slowly corroding as the batteries start to leak. Novelty cork-screws given to people who already have a perfectly functional way of opening a bottle of wine.

This is just in the largely adult circles I’m currently exchanging gifts with. So far, few of my friends have children. It’s not like I’ll ever have ankle biters of my own. But every frame of reference I have tells me that the ante is upped still higher when the young ones are involved. The Guardian reported in 2002 that the average family cost of Christmas Day was £564 a family – without including presents.

Christmas with really young children must have the potential to be really wonderful. Naive excitement, all that guff about Santa, the shiny lights and twinkling tinsel. But by the time they get old enough to decide what they want, and be influenced by peer pressure and advertising, and have no concept of the pressures of budget – how does any parent cope? Anecdotally, I know of one little girl whose various parents and grandparents were financially vying for affection and overdid it on the presents one Christmas. She got showered with gifts to such a degree that she couldn’t concentrate for long enough to open them all, but got bored and wandered off halfway through!

The really depressing thing is how much our entire economy is built on these mountains of tat that no-one wants. How many people have been involved in that gift-set before it sits under your crestfallen face? As you try and look enthusiastic, trace it back through its life.

Someone has sold it to your donor. Someone sold them the paper its wrapped in. Someone was employed to drive it to the store, someone was paid to put it on a shelf. It was someone’s job to think up just that combination of different things, put them in plastic box with shredded guinea pig bedding, package it beautifully, and advertise it on national TV. Someone, probably someone a long way away earning a dollar a decade, actually made the things in the box.

Two days after you opened yours, it’s going to be someone else’s job to sell hundreds of leftover ones just like yours at knock-down prices to an ill-tempered mob of January sales shoppers.

That’s just one unwanted gift. Multiply it up by all the millions of unwanted gifts, and you start to see the sheer importance of the tat-selling frenzy to our entire economy. All the big high-street players who are peddling this tat need a big boost in sales at this time of year to stay in the game. If your sales don’t see an upturn in November, December and January, your stock starts to fall. If your stock falls, your investors go elsewhere and ultimately all those millions of people who were gainfully employed shipping the tat from Taiwan to trees in sitting rooms across Britain find themselves out on their ears.

Our entire economy is underpinned by the unwanted gift industry. I can’t be the only person who finds that profoundly depressing.

Declaration of interests: I haven’t bought the vast majority of my Christmas presents yet. I started this afternoon, and gave up when I realised I didn’t have a bloody clue for almost all of the people I am expected to buy for. I will be out there clamouring for unwanted tat just like everyone else.

Within my close family, the argument is nearly won. It’s enough for us now to get together over Christmas and see each other. The gifts are small and modest. My Dad always gets the Booker prize-winning novel for Christmas, so there’s one present I don’t have to rack my brain for. He’s a meticulous reader, so it will probably last him until his birthday in February when I will have to put my thinking cap on anew.

I don’t know if I’ve won the argument with P. He really likes Christmas. He’s clamouring to put up decorations, and the only reason they’re not up already is because it’s a bit pointless when we know that all of this week is going to see workmen tramping through our halls making dust and dirt. Might as well wait and put the tree up after they’ve gone, which is the sort of time I think trees ought to go up. In childhood, we’d wait until we broke up from school. Several of P’s friends have their trees up in November, and they certainly won’t be coming down on Twelfth Night.

There are several groups of friends I go through gift-giving rituals where the argument is not won, and they will be spending on me and expecting me to reciprocate. There is no way out. They don’t take me seriously if I say the best present I could receive is the gift of not receiving anything and not having to give anything. Having a nice day where we sit in the warm and eat and drink and chat would never be enough. I’m accused of scroogery. Going away for Christmas wouldn’t work – the various gift-giving ceremonies are scheduled around commitments, and they would wait for me, or, horror of horror, make us schedule the party even earlier! (At least when it falls late, post-Christmas, people can get better value, January sales tat rather than premium rate tat).

“The War on Christmas”

Coming up later – what I think about the “aggressive secularists”!


7 comments on “Sustainable Christmas

  1. Grace says:

    I pretty much agree – especially on the tree and decorations thing – no decs before advent in ANY house, and none until a week before in mine! And everything out on 12th night.

    As for the mass produced tat being passed round it is pretty sould destrping, isn’t it? My Dad always asks for practical things – this year his stocking will include antifreeze and wd40!

  2. mac jordan says:

    Pete and I don’t cashmas presents – not for each other, and not for anyone else. And all our friends and family _know_ this, and don’t buy them for us either.

    if we something we know someone would like, and we can afford it, we buy it for them. When we see it. And give it to them when we see them. Much more fun, and no duty involved.

    I loathe and detest the commercialism of this season, and will have nothing to do with it.

  3. dr_nick says:

    i agree, bro, feel free to wipe me from the list if you like!

    i do think the spirit of christmas is good, the giving and receiving of (needed) gifts is great. but what a waste of money, and a depressing support for the economy.

    this year i have been saying to sarah (GF) all year – “this is something that would make me a good present”, when i see something useful or something i need but can’t quite afford or justify right now. she has made a list and come bday/christmas time emailed it to friends and rellies.

    the only christmas presents i have bought so far are really practical useful things, heavily discounted, and which will last and be used for years to come. (but i only have bought one lot so far!)

    hopefully i wont have to get anything else… what with work commitments and stuff – but hey: i don’t know what i’m doing yet cos i dont have a rota that far in advance… 😦


  4. Leigh says:

    Gulp…not sure how to respond to that actually…as one of the people doing the buying of the presents (and truthfully expecting something in return) for you, I don’t think you have ever fully expressed this sentiment to me.

    I recognise that you are miserable around Christmas but I put that down to general ‘bah, humbuggery’ and not some conscious, rational reasoning. To be fair as you are generally miserable all year round its difficult to distinguish as something different and specific!

    Perhaps you are right though….we should, as a group, have a sensible conversation about this before it spirals out of control. I would much prefer a single well thought out present than a bunch of tat that is going to clutter up my house as well. Good job I returned the electronic stuff I had bought you already for something I hope you’ll enjoy much more! Perhaps Boxing Day is the time to bring it up when we are all together? How do you feel about a Secret Santa? Perhaps we could then have time to come up with a single meaningful present for one other person without spending a lot. This would certainly give scope for a better class of present as one present of £30-40 is much cheaper than 6 of £15-20. May not be ideal but is certainly a compromise if others are determined to buy presents!

    With regards to your tat mountain I think the biggest challenge for you is to recognise that you have got a problem and let us help you sort it out. I’ll reiterate my genuine offer to come down one weekend and help you have a good clearout…when are you free?

  5. niles says:

    Perhaps Boxing Day is the time to bring it up when we are all together?

    Hmmm. “Thanks for the presents. They were lovely. Please don’t give me them next year” I really don’t want to classify presents between “good presents” and “bad presents” in the specific with a pile in front of me when the abstract will do just fine.

    I’m not sure there is a right time to bring it up!

    How do you feel about a Secret Santa? Perhaps we could then have time to come up with a single meaningful present for one other person without spending a lot. This would certainly give scope for a better class of present as one present of £30-40 is much cheaper than 6 of £15-20. May not be ideal but is certainly a compromise if others are determined to buy presents!

    Eep! Not sure whether that just increases the pressure still further! You’re buying just one present. On behalf of everyone. It had better be damn amazing!

    With regards to your tat mountain I think the biggest challenge for you is to recognise that you have got a problem and let us help you sort it out.

    I know I’ve got a problem! It’s twofold – lack of storage space, and too much stuff.

    I really do have the first: no garage, no cellar, the shed leaks, the outside cupboard now has a washing machine in it and the attic is scary. That does mean there are things we own we really don’t want to dispose of that don’t have homes – the camping kit for one. We’re addressing that by seeing if we can have the attic spruced up and the shed replaced with a bigger one, for starters.

    Which leads me to the too-much-stuff…

    I’ll reiterate my genuine offer to come down one weekend and help you have a good clearout…when are you free?

    Free? Properly free? For a whole weekend? Not until after May’s local elections!

    What worries me is the look in your eyes when you say that! You just want to throw my precious things away! I suddenly picture you as Edward Scissorhands chopping through my stuff!

    It took me about 2 hours to clear half an armchair the other day, sorting through what had to be shredded, what kept, what dealt with, what recycled. It’s a judgement call on each thing, and it really has to be me as does it!

    And I’m worried what I’ll find. I want to make the unsavoury discoveries myself!

    And there’s barely enough space to sort properly. I don’t have the room to make separate piles of keep/not-keep because it’s already full of non-specific clutter.

    Oh dear. Lots of pathetic excuses.

    If I’ve done nowt about it by June, then you can come and throw things away!

  6. Leigh says:

    Ok…don’t know how to do those fancy quote things but hopefully you’ll follow this ok.

    I agree that Boxing day isn’t the best time but it does need to be sooner rather than later and when we’re all together.

    At least with Secret Santa (if you know early enough) you can really think about what they might like and spot stuff throughout the year. And its not like the rest of us would laugh and point…I’m sure you could get some help. The point is, is that its a compromise…I don’t think everyone would be keen to just stop buying presents for each other, which seems to be the other option. Do you have this much trouble for birthdays or do you just buy the first thing you see for those as well?

    The thing is if you know you have no storage space and you know you have more stuff than you can fit in that house you must accept that somethings will have to go. If you don’t accept that then I don’t think you don’t really want to deal with the problem. It’s inevitable that you are going to acquire more things so you have to do something about it. Have you thought about putting things into storage? Its not that expensive really and things like the full camping gear are probably only needed a few times a year…we have the same problem.

    It does sound like a lot of excuses, I’m glad you pointed that out so I didn’t need to! I absolutely agree that you need to decide what stays and what goes but I find that if I try to do it on my own I get bogged down with how insurmountable it all is and give up halfway through. Someone objective who can keep you focussed really helps. Until you’ve done it I’m not sure you can appreciate how much of a weight on your shoulders it is.

    When are you free so we can get it in our diaries now? I don’t want you to find some other reason to delay it after the elections. And just think, if you have sorted by then we can come and you’ll be able to gloat that you didn’t need our help and we can be your first proper house guests you aren’t sleeping between boxes in the lounge!

  7. […] no secret I’m not a particularly Christmassy person – read here about why I don’t like the orgy of commercialism – but I do like to send cards out. In the main this is to a group of people I don’t […]

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