The Give and Take of Christmas

With only a few weeks to go I can feel Christmas thundering towards me once again, with all the speed and head-on inevitability of an oncoming train. It always gets like this; I never seem to be able to slow it down and I know I can’t pause it. November has got to be the fastest month of the year. One minute the leaves are turning colour and falling, then the clocks go forward (or is it back?), and the next it’s the rapid, unforgiving countdown to The Big Day, with so much to do in between.

A few years ago I actually gave up writing Christmas cards. I know I should consider myself lucky to have so many people in my life that I feel  overwhelmed by the number I have to send cards to. But that’s the main problem: ‘have to’. I felt obliged. Many do, if they’re honest about it. So one day, in a rare moment of mental clarity, I decided this whole card-writing thing had, to me at least, become too much of a chore. I would put it off and put it off, year after year, like an essay or a tax return. And then I’d finally buy the cards (granted, they’re not that expensive these days in their multi-pack deals) and eventually force myself to sit down and write them – last minute, usually, on the very edge of last posting days. Then I’d queue for ages to get stamps for all the different countries I had to send them to. So much time needed.

In short, truthfully, the process was making me feel stressed and irritated. And who wants a card from someone who feels that way? Are these the personal greetings with love and best wishes that the card’s message suggests? Not really. And it’s not because I don’t care about my family, friends and colleagues, but it was getting to be more and more of a task I neither enjoyed nor really had time for. And things have changed in a way, because Christmas cards were often the one time of year you’d get in touch with someone, but social media has changed all that. So I stopped and haven’t written a Christmas card for two years (except for my wife, kids and parents who would kill me if I didn’t – some things have to remain).

So instead, I send an email (not an e-card, because those don’t do it for me either) to all the people to whom I would normally have sent a card, and say that I prefer to wish everyone a happy holiday and best wishes for the New Year, and then say that instead of spending about £60 on sending cards (I worked it out), I have donated it to Oxfam Unwrapped, which I really do. No-one can complain about a guy who has provided a water well in an African village or helped a donkey learn to read, plus I feel I’ve done a good thing. It’s a win-win scenario. Especially for the village. And the donkey.

In case you’re wondering, many people still send me cards (maybe they haven’t noticed I’ve stopped, because they get so many and don’t really remember who sent what) and I still like that, but I wouldn’t be offended if they stopped, too. If they stop because my not sending them a card has offended them, then I may have a problem. I guess I’d have an even bigger problem if I find, one day, I’m not getting any cards at all, because I might miss that, and that would be my own fault. Oh well. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I’ve got enough on my plate.

The statistics on what we spend on Christmas gifts and wrapping paper are beyond belief. I’m not about to say that I don’t buy gifts either, because I do. Nor am I about to discuss the fors and againsts of Christmas, and whether it has a place at all in a world of religious conflict and growing humanism. Christmas is a bit like the Royal Family in that sense – some like it, some don’t. Some think it’s worth the money, some don’t. And like it or not, I don’t see it going away for quite a while. So, whatever reasons make us  believe in the festive period or not, most of us give and receive gifts this time of year, at least in the spirit of love for friends and family (and keeping employees happy), and there can’t be much wrong with that, can there? But it comes at a cost to the pocket, mind and body.

This year, the average Briton will spend around £900 on Christmas, with about half that amount spent on gifts. Now I think about it, that sounds low, because that’s not a huge amount of money these days. Well, it is, but I mean I thought it might be worse. It’s the same as a short break to Munich, right? (unless you live in Lima). Actually, some people do that (skip Christmas, not live in Lima), and there’s a lovely film about it called Christmas with the Kranks, based in John Grisham’s delightful novel Skipping Christmas. I highly recommend both. I recommend Lima, too, by the way, but watch the taxis. You take your life in your hands there. Or rather, the drivers do.

Where was I?

Oh yes. £900 spent by each of us. So that’s almost £2,000 if you’re a couple. It adds up. And listen to this: online alone, UK shoppers will spend well over £7billion on Christmas! Seven. Billion. Quid. That is a serious amount of money. And if research is to be believed, most of us spend the first half of any new year paying it back because we couldn’t afford it in the first place.

And then there’s all the waste and the fallout. For example:

Wrapping paper. Almost a quarter of a million miles of it is used and thrown away each year in the UK. That’s about as far as from here (UK or Lima) to the moon! OK, there’s recycling, I know, but still.

Unwanted gifts. I’ve heard that about 10% of gifts are unwanted or exchanged, and so last year about 200,000 people in the UK registered their unwanted gifts on eBay on Christmas Day! By Boxing Day, 1.5 million new items were listed there. Madness.

Packaging. We will throw away about 125,000 tonnes of plastic wrapping and 25 million Christmas pudding packages (who counts all this stuff?!).

Food. We will usually eat a whole day’s normal calorie intake in the one Christmas meal. We are,on average, 5lb heavier after Christmas, having consumed about 250 extra calories per day during the holiday.

Weight. If we try at all, we will spend at least three months losing the extra weight, and we all know that joining a gym seldom sustains. Almost a quarter of those who join a gym in January will give up within the first six months. Most by March.

Divorce. January is said to be the busiest month for divorce lawyers! Of course, this could have more to do with people making resolutions, re-evaluating wives, sorry, lives, and so on, but make of that what you will. Admit it. We all experience at some time (or every time) those family tensions in gatherings of enforced intimacy and jollity (is that a word?), getting together when we normally don’t, in houses only designed for 4–5 people, with indigestion and too much drink, with less light outside to keep us happy, and the wet and cold making us ever more miserable… 

So what’s my point? What should we do?

If you want to know where I stand, I find myself (in my very late 40s), with something of a love-hate relationship with the whole thing. I have young children  –  I love giving them the magical feelings I was once given, and I know that makes them happy and excited. But I still wonder if I’m selling them an ultimately disappointing, expensive, fake and fattening dream, but they can decide that for themselves later on in their lives.

I love the family get-togethers and the occasional spontaneous party in the house or at a neighbour’s. But my wife and I get tense about it all, too. The spending, the organising, the running around and the deadlines. We have enough of that all year round.

I like the visual treats around us: the tree, the decorations, the community joining in on the same thing. But then I hate the gaudiness, the houses that try too hard, covered in tacky lights and cheap, dancing Santas. The shops look great with so much to tempt and get us in the mood, yet they urge us to buy even more and be something that we are not; something we can ill afford.

And the TV. All the films and shows I love to see, that warm us with nostalgia, all bundled together as we give ourselves permission to forget reality and watch more than we normally do (and that is already too much). Yet, on the other hand, I’ve seen most of the films a thousand times, and I see the same presenters looking ever older, trying to keep fresh and re-heat the same things I’ve been watching for about 40 years.

I think you will recognise all of the above, but know that Christmas, like life itself, is different for every one of us. We take from it what we like and want and try to live with the rest. You don’t always get out what you put in, but it’s worth a shot. You take the rough with the smooth. It’s expensive and makes you fat. It’s all over eventually, as all good things must come to an end. But what the hell. At least you get some time off. And without that, how can you recharge for going back to work to earn the money pay off your credit card?