Christmas can be a time of stress and shame for families struggling to make ends meet

With the universal credit uplift scrapped, energy bills soaring, food prices increasing and workers being made redundant, parents already feel the strain of trying to provide for their families’ essential needs

<p>Christmas can be a very stressful time for families struggling to afford essentials</p>

Christmas can be a very stressful time for families struggling to afford essentials

Each December, we parents have this lovely tradition of chatting about Christmas plans. A question rolls off our tongues without even thinking – “so, what are you guys doing over the holidays?”

The question is innocent enough, but has a tendency to create a cultural expectation that the holiday season is about fitting as many themed events in as possible. Although Covid dampened the mood last year, this Christmas everything seems to be back in full swing.

A Santa’s grotto can be found at every garden centre where children can enjoy a couple of minutes with Father Christmas. Schools take trips to local attractions. There are winter wonderlands with fairground rides and festive food and drink. Ice rinks for skating. Shopping at quaint Christmas markets. Parties at clubs, castles and national trusts. Pantomimes at the theatres.

All of these activities, combined with paying for Christmas dinner and presents, costs the average Briton £1,108 – a high price tag for all families, especially those already struggling to pay for rent, heating, clothing, food and transport.

If you’re a family who can afford it, these cheerful events are memorable ways to mark the season. But for families with tight finances, these events create the perfect storm for comparison, shame, anxiety, debt and sadness. When some parents flick through social media, chat at the school gate, or get another letter from school asking for money towards a Christmas activity, an overwhelming sense of anxiety rushes over them.

“I’m already struggling with paying for Christmas presents, I can’t afford another thing. My kids will feel left out if they don’t get to do what all their friends are doing – I don’t want them to feel like outsiders. What if they grow up resenting me because I couldn’t provide for them like other parents? I guess I can find more ways to cut down so that I can pay. Maybe I should take out a loan. I feel like a failure as a parent.”

All of these thoughts might be racing through the heads of parents struggling with finances this year. With the £20 a week universal credit uplift scrapped, energy bills soaring, food prices increasing and workers being made redundant, parents already feel the strain of trying to provide for their families’ essential needs. They don’t need the debt, guilt or shame of not being able to pay the high price tag for activities offered during the holiday season.

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And then there are children who head into school every weekday painfully aware of all that they miss out on at Christmas, but unable to fully comprehend why. “I wonder why I didn’t get to see Santa this year and she did, three times. It’s not fair I had to stay at school while the rest of my class got to go on the school trip. Why don’t my parents want to take me on special outings and adventures? I hear everyone else talking about the fun they’ve had – I wish I got to do all the things they do. I feel different to everyone else.”

Sure, families can find alternative memory-building experiences that won’t break the bank – going on winter walks, baking cookies and watching Christmas films. And families who can afford grottos and pantos shouldn’t feel guilty about participating in the festive fun. But I wonder if there is a way to even the playing field by creating plenty of free or cheap holiday experiences for families.

If churches, theatres, businesses, community centres and schools found creative ways to offer families of all incomes unforgettable experiences at Christmas, we’d break a societal divide that the Christmas season creates, ease the load of anxious parents, and give all children experiences of a magical celebration full of generosity and joy.

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