Has Christmas become less about giving, and more about getting into debt?

I can’t help but feel a sense of sadness as the season gets into full swing, and all over the country our credit cards clock up more and more debt on those festive ‘essentials’

Sarah Baba
Saturday 22 December 2018 11:53
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We’re in the midst of that “most wonderful time of the year” when the jingle of doorbells signals Amazon bearing gifts. But has the season for giving become more about getting? Further into debt, that is.

Since childhood, I’ve been acutely aware of how money worries can weave a suffocating web. Not because I was brought up on the poverty line; I had a comfortable upbringing in terms of material things.

But my parents – both immigrants with difficult beginnings – had a mission to make us respect the power of money. They had grown up literally thousands of miles away from Surrey – my father from Baghdad and my mother from a village in Malaysia.

Like many newcomers, they sought a better life here and worked hard for it. From serving in a care home and packing car parts on the Dagenham motors assembly line to driving pop stars like Rod Stewart around town. Another story for another time. The fact is, they worked hard for a sense of security so that their four children would have opportunities they had only seen on grainy television screens through neighbours’ windows.

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That all changed when they lost their tens of thousands of hard-earned savings in a bank collapse during the early 1990s; suddenly that security was pulled from under their feet.

It was a time I vividly remember – when furious fights would flare between my parents. Long periods of never seeing my dad, as he worked day and night to keep our home from being repossessed. As an eight year old, I had no idea what any of it was about of course. Only as an adult have I been able to connect the dots and realise that money struggles had torn my family apart, hitting my mum the hardest, something she never fully recovered from.

I’m now 35, but that uncomfortable relationship with money has only got more powerful. My social media feed fills with ads telling me I absolutely need this dress, this bag, this coat in my life. Today, there are £250 cosmetic advent calendars promising to make every day in December worth getting out of bed for.

There is no more intense time of year to feel the pressure to keep up like the festive season – whatever the cost. And this pressure is amplified in an age where social media is a shop window with our most polished lives on display. Instagram has a filter that smooths over the uncomfortable truth in one swipe; it puts a soft edge on the unpaid loans that brought the show home kitchen with double range cooker; Facebook doesn’t tag the mounting debts behind the sliding patio doors.

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And this year, the lure of spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need comes with a heavier weight. I’ve spent the past two years supporting a dear friend drowning as eye-watering debts threaten to do what that bank collapse did to my own family. The weight of the debt has led to drinking problems and depression, as my friend and her husband tread water to keep up minimum payments, whilst forcing that “everything’s fine” exterior.

At Christmas, the pressure mounts for them to give their children the same day that all their other friends at school will be enjoying – the trips to grottos with the photo memento, the bulging stockings, the latest Hatchimals and talking robots advertised in between episodes of Peppa Pig.

All the while, just like eight-year-old me, their young children are confused, wondering why they don’t see daddy in the week and why, when he’s home, mummy shouts loudly and slams doors. Watching history repeat itself as you stand on the sidelines is painful.

And it’s why I can’t help but feel a sense of sadness as the season gets into full swing, and all over the country our credit cards clock up more and more debt on those festive “essentials”.

So, maybe this year could be the year we take stock and ask whether our children or partner would really miss those excessive gifts, the trip to Lapland or the new dinner set for hosting distant relatives if they knew what the real price tag was.

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