For the majority, Christmas really is the most wonderful time of year; surrounded by family, friends, hearty meals, copious amounts of alcohol and ever more copious amounts of presents. For others though it can be a particularly difficult time of year; the homeless, those with no family, or those whose families aren’t able to indulge in the Christmas festivities without making more than a few sacrifices. The amount of Brits entering the new year riddled in debt is staggering, and entirely avoidable. But in order to reverse this trend we need to reconnect with what really matters during Christmas time.
While I have a strange relationship with Christmas, my fondness for the festive season has augmented since becoming a student. For me, Christmas offers a welcome return home; a few weeks of largely uninterrupted time spent catching up with family and friends in the many places around York I feel most comfortable. Whether this be over the dining table with my mum or over a few (possibly too many) pints with my dad and fellow revellers in any one of York’s many revered drinking establishments, I derive great pleasure from simply spending time with, and talking, about all manner of subjects, to my nearest and dearest. his is both the essence of Christmas and life it self: valuable time spent with valuable people doing valuable things.
Unfortunately, I feel as though Christmas has departed from these ideals- instead becoming consumed by a need for material goods. One need only look to ‘events’ such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the Boxing Day sales (all of which seem to last much longer than their names would suggest) to see evidence of this diversion. Black Friday and Cyber Monday, ideas recently adopted by UK retailers, are days during the run up to Christmas where prices are slashed and we are encouraged to get the bulk of our Christmas shopping done weeks in advance. A process leaving us plenty of time to pick up a plethora of other, smaller gifts such as a ‘Kevin the Carrot’ or a KFC branded, fried chicken scented heat log (really). And consider the Boxing Day sales; within 24 hours of carving our turkeys, and having just received all manner of gifts from our extended families we are – instead of spending a (possibly less stressful) day with our immediate family – expected to flock to shopping centres to purchase all the stock retailers couldn’t sell before Christmas.
Although Boxing Day is traditionally associated with servitude (servants would be given the day off to see their families, often with gifts from their employers) it was also associated with giving to the needy and less fortuitous. Compare this to its modern incarnation: Boxing Day is punctuated by buying yet more ‘stuff’ from stores staffed by people who, filled with leftover turkey, gratify this need for material goods with each scan of a bar-code. Instead of taking the the time to donate to those less fortunate and spend valuable time with our immediate family and closest friends we instead, mere hours after receiving numerous gifts, choose to consume more and more.
Now, do not take this as a rallying call against the notion of consumerism; to quote Mark Corrigan “It’s only the miracle of consumer capitalism that means you’re not lying in your own shit, dying at 43 with rotten teeth”. He’s not wrong. Since 1899, when the first book on consumerism was published by Thornstein Veblen, UK life expectancy has increased from 48 years to 79 years. Now you may well equate this considerable leap with the advent of the welfare state and the statism of Post-War Britain but it is my sincere belief that without consumerism the establishment of such important institutions would not have been possible. Consider how much taxation had to be increased to facilitate these priceless institutions. Throughout the second World War, and in the decades following, the highest rates were between 75% and 99.25%. Without the increased wages associated with the onset of consumerism who would the state have taxed? By manifesting a desire to consume material goods a cycle of wage growth and spending power was perpetuated for decades leading to people dying at 79, with a full set of teeth, in a state funded bed.
This ‘miracle’ has since become a nightmare. Consumerism is sustained by the continued, and increasing, acquisition of goods. While this has created huge benefits I struggle to see it as a continuing force for good. In an era which is quickly coming to be defined by inequality, climate change, monopolistic businesses, loneliness and the proliferation of useless ‘stuff’, I think it’s time we take a step back and look at what society has become. Life, it seems, is now consumed by the need to get a hold of the latest iPhone or smart television, but what’s the point? New iPhones are released at least once a year, as are new televisions. Surely there cannot be such a drastic difference between each incarnation as to make it worthwhile spending hundreds, if not thousands, on a new phone every 12 months. Twitter, especially at this time of year, is awash with pictures of what only be described as meaningless crap: a Christmas outfit for your dog or a novelty reindeer phone case for your brand new, soon to be outdated, iPhone X. As the realities of the future, and indeed our present, become ever clearer it becomes obvious that something must change.
when you’re out on the high street this Christmas, take a step back and think about what you’re doing. Do your kids really need a brand new iPhone? Consider how damaging the production process for these phones is; Cobalt mined in the Congo and shipped to China to be put into an aluminium case and shipped to the UK and America. Or the novelty t-shirt made by some underpaid kids in Pakistan that requires 250 gallons of water to produce. How long until that Reindeer adorned shirt is relegated to the back of the cupboard, never to be worn again? Consider that Amazon, who’s owner Jeff Bezos is worth 131 Billion Dollars, pays its warehouse employees £8.77 an hour; 33p less than the UK living wage. Consider the environmental impact your gifts are having. Consider the record numbers of homeless people in the UK, failed by a state being ripped off by big business.
This is not to say we should stop buying gifts for our loved ones altogether. Seeing your friends and family happy as Larry is as wholesome as it gets, but this year buy gifts that won’t destroy the planet, be thrown away within weeks or perpetuate the inequalities that are pulling society apart. Avoid splurging on a brand new iPhone shipped to you via an Amazon warehouse. Buy something in your town centre that really means something to those for whom you are buying. And then use the money you’ve saved by not buying the meaningless gifts to recapture the spirit of Christmas and do something truly valuable. Donate some money to charity, buy an extra turkey and make some sandwiches for your local homeless shelter or invite your elderly neighbour around for dinner. This year, don’t worry about keeping up with the Joneses, worry about looking after the Joneses.
Written by Hugh Tyler-Wray