Christmas 1995: `Do we eat, or do we sit in the dark?'

For single mothers who start saving in January, festive cheer is in short supply, writes Catherine Pepinster

"THERE is no Father Christmas in this house," says Lynda Sunderland, looking around her newly-decorated living room, complete with tree and glitter. "I have to be Mother Christmas - everything - for my children. The stress of it is always there, but the exhaustion, the strain of it tells at Christmas time most of all."

Lynda Sunderland is one of thousands of single mothers for whom Christmas is not so much a celebration of family, community, myth and magic, as a time of striving against the odds to live up to those myths. It is a season not so much of goodwill and rejoicing but of making do. Angels are not all around; but Toys R Us adverts, and the Child Support Agency most definitely are.

The difficulties of the single-parent Christmas are so obvious that it is easy to forget how many problems there are - and how they crop up at the same time.

There is the expense, first of all: cards and postage; the food and drink; the gifts; visits to the pantomime. How does a single parent make pounds 100 a week income support stretch to meet the normal household bills, let alone Christmas expenses?

There is the loneliness, the lack of that very special gift from a husband or partner. "Yes, that's what I do miss," says Lynda. "Opening the box of lingerie, something really luxurious."

"Perfume! What I'd give for perfume," laughs Kate Lister, who has brought up Oliver, 11, and Amy, eight, since her husband walked out when she was pregnant with her daughter. "My children give me something very small but I know what it is."

And there is the ghost of Christmas past, lurking in the single-parent household. As the box of decorations is brought down from the loft, the memories of far happier days are reawakened for children who recall times when they helped Mum and Dad decorate the tree together.

Yet even for mothers - and they are usually mothers - already skilled in coping with the ins and outs of job versus child care, and the red tape of social security offices, the hardest test of all is coping with the household budget.

Lynda Sunderland, who lives near York, recalls last Christmas when she had pounds 75 for herself and her three children, aged 16, 12 and six. The gifts she bought came from an Oxfam shop or she made them herself. "I had to make them; there was no other choice," she says.

"A middle-class woman may decide to do embroidery because she has a choice. For me there was no satisfaction in having a skill: I wanted to go to Marks & Spencers like everyone else.

"All the money went on presents so I had to buy four ready-made turkey dinners, with one slice of turkey, a sprout and a carrot. We couldn't afford mince pies or a cake."

This year, Lynda is financially better-off, because she has found sporadic work as a supply teacher, but the emotional difficulties, if not the economic problems, remain.

"Holding the family together can be completely draining," she says. "The anxiety you feel, making sure that Christmas is as good as possible, is enormous. You don't want your kids to feel different to anybody else."

That yearning not to be different, to ensure that their children do not stand out from the crowd, dominates many single parents' thinking. But it can be hard. When your children come home from school, wanting the latest trainers, dolls, and computer games, how do you afford them on a limited income?

Denise Stephens, who lives in Scarborough, cares for her 11-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son on pounds 90 a week, of which pounds 10 is used to pay the arrears on her gas bill. Her children come home from school pleading with Mum for Umbro and Adidas clothing. "It's impossible to pay for these. My children go without and it hurts. School friends notice that kind of thing, that you don't have the right stuff. Children can be very cruel."

This year, Denise did get help from her ex-husband towards her children's presents so she was able to buy them a second-hand portable television for pounds 50 and a second-hand CD player for pounds 60.

For some, the answer is to scrimp and save throughout the year in order to afford the Christmas bills. Sandra Fitt, mother of an 18-year-old and twins aged 14, whom she has brought up by herself for 12 years, has made housekeeping into an art form of which the Grantham grocer, alderman Roberts and his daughter - later to become Margaret Thatcher - would have been proud. The family lives on just pounds 131.60 a week, made up of invalidity and child benefit.

"I start planning Christmas in January, buying cut-price stocking fillers and toys. Then in September I start thinking about Christmas, buying pickles and packets of jelly. At the time, I can't really afford pounds 2 or pounds 3 from my weekly money but it does mean that when Christmas comes I've a cupboard full of presents and another full of food."

Central to Sandra's budgeting was being able to afford a Christmas Day turkey, so her local butcher in Cardiff kept a turkey card for her. Each time, she gave him a few pence towards the cost of the bird, he would mark it down. This year, a turkey price war between the Cardiff supermarkets meant the fowl was cheaper than ever.

A supermarket special offer also came to the rescue of Kate Lister, who has spent pounds 30 on Christmas food for her family in her local store in Newbury, Berkshire, entitling her to a free turkey.

Like Sandra, throughout the year, Kate has bought items towards paying for Christmas. But with pounds 90 a week in her pocket, she can ill afford to splash out. There have been no trips to see Christmas lights, the very few cards she sends have all been hand-delivered, and the bottles in her store cupboard are lemonade rather than champagne. A treat to see Santa was provided by her parents.

"The children don't have contact with their Dad and I do feel I have to make it up to them. It is not their fault and I feel that I have to do that little bit extra, although that can mean getting into debt."

For many single parents, being able to collect their benefit a few days before the holiday is nothing short of a godsend. But the temptation is to spend it all at once, leaving them with little or no money in the days before New Year.

And unlike pensioners, single parents who are dependent upon income support and other social security benefits do not receive a pounds 10 Christmas bonus.

Like many other families, the Listers and the Sunderlands will be watching television on Chritmas Day. Two editions of EastEnders will feature among BBC1's highlights, where Gita and her young daughter, left by her husband Sanjay, will join a throng of Albert Square neighbours for lunch. For them it will be, as Dickens said, "when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely". That's the fiction. The reality is that many women living alone with their children will have nobody suggesting they join in festivities.

And then there are the knocks on the front door. They can mean envy, even conflict. Fathers, now finding themselves single and over-compensating for lack of contact with their children, arrive laden with gifts, bestowing benevolence like latter-day Magi.

"He turns up in an M-reg car and despite all the times I've told myself not to notice it, I get very bitter," says Christine, who is bringing up her four children, aged between 14 and four on her own in a Scarborough council house. You're there all through the year and then their Dad turns up and you just think: I look after them all year round, and he can just swan in."

Christine is paying pounds 15 a week in gas bill arrears which leavesher and her family just pounds 115 a week to live on.

"This year has been so bad that my father has bought the children's main presents. I could not afford anything. I've not sent any cards, and some weeks, I've had to choose between food or electricity. Do we eat or sit in the dark?

"This year, Christmas is not really going to happen for us. We'll have a chicken and a tree but there's not much else. There's no question of a drink, and I can't even afford my own kids' presents."

Despite Christine's money worries, 25 December has not lost its significance beneath its tawdry wrapper of crass commercialism. For her, the day is one of fundamental significance as a religious festival and most of all, a day marking Nativity - the love of a mother for a newborn child.

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