Getting up on Christmas morning to find a pile of presents under the tree is a tradition which many people look forward to each year. For children, in particular, the annual visit by Santa Claus is a time of high excitement.
But, as psychologist and TV personality Emma Kenny points out, “It goes without saying that Christmas can be incredibly stressful for all.”
What she doesn’t say is why ‘it goes without saying’. Let’s first of all ditch the religious retort. If Christmas was ever a religious festival, it has long since stopped being one in most British households. There may be Christmas Carols and even a drunken visit to Midnight Mass, but Christmas is no more about religion than Red Nose Day is really about overcoming poverty.
Christmas has become, and in fact may have always been, a festival of consumerism. For many businesses, particularly those in retail and hospitality, the Christmas period is absolutely vital to their survival. A good Christmas can be the difference between staying in business and failing. It is estimated that over £27 billion will be spent on presents alone. It is important, therefore, for the economy.
Socialists tend to have mixed feelings about Christmas. Being enthusiastic about it almost feels like a betrayal of our socialist principles. But, as Emma Goldman once remarked, Christmas can be seen as a good thing because it teaches children what every day could be like in a post-capitalist society. That may have been stretching things a little, but if you are a socialist who enjoys Christmas you do not need to feel guilty.
People enjoy Christmas, as George Orwell once pointed out, because it only comes once a year. In an essay titled, ironically, ‘Why Socialists Don’t Enjoy Fun’, he discusses Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ and remarks, “The Cratchits are able to enjoy Christmas precisely because it only comes once a year. Their happiness is convincing just because Christmas only comes once a year. Their happiness is convincing just because it is described as incomplete.”
Working class life in Victorian times, which are the archetypal blueprint of our modern Christmas, was hard. Thanks to successive rounds of neoliberal governments, life for working class people remains hard. Hence the stress that Emma Kenny describes.
One recent study found that around 70% of Britons struggle financially as a result of Christmas. Christmas has always been a burden for lower income families, but this year, coming on top of the cost of living crisis, it is even more so.
But most people are not yet ready to ditch Christmas, whether it remains fun or not. And, for the capitalist economy Christmas remains essential. The Bank Of England reviewed our spending patterns in 2020 and found that we spent a lot more on specific goods in December compared to the rest of the year. Our spending on books, for example, doubles in December. On CDs it almost doubles, electronic equipment is up 61% and clothing rises by 49%.
According to finder.com the average person in the UK will spend £602 on presents this yuletide, an increase of 40% on 2022. Many will go into debt in order to do so. Almost 43 million people are intending to fund their Christmas spending on their credit cards, with younger generations particularly prone to buy now and pay later. The average Christmas credit card spend amounts to one quarter of the average salary.
Those without access to credit cards will find themselves reliant on loan sharks who charge huge rates of interest. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) issues annual warnings about scammers. Therese Chambers of the FCA warns: “Fraudsters will take advantage even of parents’ desire to give their children a good Christmas.” Nonetheless, more than half of parents with children under 18 will go into debt to give their kids a decent Christmas. Nearly a third of parents with young children will go into debt. This is not because they are unable to budget effectively, but that society places pressure on them to conform to the Christmas norm.
Matt Dronfield, Managing Director of Debt Free Advice, says: “As Christmas approaches, families across the country face mounting pressure to keep up with societal expectations, often leading to increased debt and financial strain. Many of our clients are already burdened by the weight of utility bill debt, imposed by the ongoing cost of living crisis. Holiday-induced debt can have far-reaching consequences, affecting families’ financial stability, mental health, and overall wellbeing.” In fact, the FCA found that two-thirds of parents feel pressured into spending more than they can afford.
Christmas can be a marvellous time of year, an opportunity to be with friends and family, to indulge a little and simply to have a break from the norm. But it can equally be a time of stress, debt and worry. Despite the media telling us that the cost of living crisis has now eased, this really only applies to food inflation which has come down from highs of 30%+ to current figures, according to the Critical Mass shopping basket, of 5.44%.
Gas and electricity continue to rise with households being asked to find huge increases to fund the privatised energy companies ever-increasing profit margins. Just recently I was told that my direct debit payment was to rise by £80 per month. By my calculation this will mean that I will very soon be in credit as it is almost impossible to get that amount reduced. In October, Ofgem reported that utility firms hold over £8 billion in overpayments. This is as close to daylight robbery as it is possible to come without somebody actually pointing a gun at your head and taking your wallet.
We all know that the one thing that does not rise is our incomes, at least not enough to compete with inflation. Even for those workers who received reasonable wage increases this year, the increases were often below inflation. RMT workers at Network Rail, following a long dispute, received up to 14.4%, but in June, following a series of very well supported one day strikes, nurses received just 5% at a point when inflation was 8%. Meanwhile prices continue to rise, even if the rate of the rise is slowing. Christmas is the icing on the cake as we struggle to make ends meet.
We should not forget that for some children Christmas morning will not be filled with joy. There will not be a pile of presents under a tree in a warm home. There will not be a Christmas feast. Christmas Day will be just another day. Not because their parents have failed but because society is not only failing, but failing to care that it is failing.
Around one in five people, according to the DWP are in poverty in the UK. Almost a third of children are in poverty. (These figures are from the House of Commons.) That is a societal failure on a massive scale.
Yet, as we enter a General Election year, neither of the main parties has a coherent plan to even reduce, let alone end, poverty. Whilst the political elite with £86k minimum salary, expenses claims, and a variety of second jobs and incomes will, no doubt, enjoy a very merry Christmas dreaming of electoral success in 2024, many of their constituents can look forward only to more hardship, more debt and more misery. Merry Christmas Everybody, indeed!
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.