As Christmas draws ever nearer, The Gryphon examines the effect our consumer-driven society is having on the traditional meaning of the festive season.
Christmas is a time to relax, reflect, and spend time with our loved ones. However, it is also a period strongly coloured by the era of consumerism. Traditions such as the lighting of candles on an advent wreath are now almost entirely confined to religious spaces, whilst consumer-driven practices, such as the purchasing of chocolate advent calendars, have become the norm.
Our Capitalist society thrives on the season of goodwill, transforming it into a glittering, sparkling, spending extravaganza. As soon as Halloween is over, mince pies, tinsel, and yule logs invade the shelves of every supermarket. A subconscious countdown to the release of the John Lewis Christmas advert begins in our minds. As the stress mounts, we frantically attempt to plan out all the presents that, according to commercials, we need to buy. In the process, we gradually lose sense of what Christmas truly means.
Christmas, once the season of giving, appears to have turned into the season of getting. The writing of Christmas lists is a longstanding tradition; though in the past it was done without the same degree of expectation as it is today. Parents are increasingly pressured to cave to their children’s expensive demands, with the latest research conducted by Halifax indicating that “parents spend £3,186 on Christmas presents for each child, on average, up to the age of 18”, resulting in an average annual spend of £177 per child. This leads us to question whether Christmas is more about the money spent than the love and thought that goes into selecting a gift.
Increasingly, the media – including films and adverts – is sending us the message that spending time with family and friends is not enough: we must spend money on them too. The saying ‘less is more’ appears to have become outdated; thriftiness has been replaced by a compulsive need to be seen as a generous individual who gives expensive gifts. Somewhere between Christmas past and Christmas present, the meaning of Christmas appears to have become slightly disfigured, with many people giving more than they can truly afford to; the Money Advice Service’s annual Christmas survey found that 1.4 million had to resort to payday loans in 2014 – a short-term solution, which can often result in crippling and undue debt.
In recent years, the ‘Christmas spirit’ has been relentlessly exploited by businesses seeking to boost their revenues; with the importation of American customs, such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, our preoccupation with material objects has rocketed into an unknown realm. The popularity of these events relies on our exposure to marketing ploys, which, ultimately, appear to succeed: this year, Reuters revealed that “Britons spent 1.1 billion pounds shopping online on ‘Black Friday’ […] according to an estimate published by retail-researcher Experian-IMRG”.
Interestingly, some retailers chose not to participate in the frenzied madness of Black Friday. Fat Face launched an initiative called ‘Thanks for Giving’, where ten percent of their net profits across the Black Friday weekend were to be distributed evenly amongst local charities which were selected by their staff. Their Leeds branch donated to the local registered homeless charity ‘Simon on the Streets’. Whilst demonstrating their own sense of corporate social responsibility, their campaign also highlights the need to think of those who are not as fortunate as ourselves whilst embracing the yuletide festivities.
Christmas is traditionally a time to think of others and to donate to worthy causes. The origins of Boxing Day can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when alms boxes were used to collect donations for the poor. Many schools continue to engage students in the well-known project ‘Operation Christmas Child’, whilst closer-to-home Residential Services at the University of Leeds are appealing for students to donate items of non-perishable food, which will then be donated to Holbeck Elderly Aid, a Leeds-based charity.
Without a doubt, perceptions of Christmas have changed over the generations. Marketing campaigns may be forced upon us, but in his column for The Guardian David Mitchell notes – with uncanny accuracy – “Christmas extravagance only continues with our collective consent.” Ultimately, we only have ourselves to blame for the continuation of this commercialised version of Christmas.
[Images: Nicole Neuefiend, amberallen.com Money Advice Service]