John-Paul Flintoff

Which Christmas are you having?

A year ago we were all stunned by the global economic collapse and hunkered down for Christmas, hoping there would still be banks and a high street at the end of it.

This year things are different. We may still be in recession, but the general mood appears to be lifting.

According to Google, many search terms associated with the harsh nature of the downturn – “arrears”, “repossession”, “redundancy insurance” – have fallen in use over the past two months. In their place, terms associated with consumer confidence (“gold jewellery”, “antique shops”, “plastic surgery”) have risen.

Yet it remains an uncertain environment. While the bankers in receipt of bonuses are starting to spend again, others who’ve been credit-crunched can’t even afford a tree. And between those extremes the vast majority of us are formulating our own new kinds of Christmas.

The Wombles Christmas

They might not be the first place you would think to do your Christmas shopping, but charity shops are doing well – sales of donated goods are 5% higher than last year. But alas, there’s a dreadful shortage of donations. “We can’t sell fresh air,” pleads a spokesman for Oxfam.

Could it be that, instead of donating unwanted items to charity, people are giving them out as presents – or “re-gifting” them?

This trend was first aired on the American sitcom Seinfeld in the 1990s but appears to fit our recessionary times. And among some people there is no attempt to hide the fact that the item is second-hand.

“I was rather surprised to receive an old book last year from my parents that had an inscription inside it, addressed to them some years previously by one of their friends,” says Thomas Green, an artist living in London. “But I was touched as he had died and they meant it to be a constant reminder of him.”

It turns out that Green’s parents were pioneers in a movement that has grown rapidly – people who look askance at consumerism not puritanically but as an opportunity to invent their own fun. For making good use of the things that they find, these people could be called Wombles.

Anne Caborn is one of a group in Brighton who set up an online community, MakeItAndMendIt, which promotes everything home-made, including Christmas trees made of junk mail and decorations made of salt dough.

“As you get older you become less impressed by what you can buy in the shops. Your standards go up. Home-made things are made with love and enthusiasm,” she says.

There’s some evidence that this belief is stronger among women than men. More than a third of women will give something home-made, compared with less than a fifth of men, according to research by John Lewis, the department store.

But are the recipients actually happy? Are young people, still in thrall to shops, disappointed to be given something home-made?

“Not at all,” says Caborn. “My 18-year-old daughter feels passionately about making and mending because she has a strong desire to learn how to do things, including what to do with leftover turkey.”

Hmmm, just try selling leftovers to a five-year-old who is desperate for a Go Go Hamster.

The Mrs Beeton Christmas

In uncertain times, for many people Christmas appears to be about sticking to tradition. Their patron is not so much Delia Smith as Mrs Beeton, the Victorian housewife whose name is a byword for absolutely proper homemaking.

The Best of Mrs Beeton’s Christmas, republished at the start of the present economic downturn, contains a combination of the time-honoured and the startlingly modern, such as microwave recipes.

It’s thanks to Mrs Beeton’s followers that Abel & Cole, the organic produce delivery company, quickly sold out of traditional Christmas items such as goose, and reports a 6% rise in sales compared with last year.

Disciples of Mrs Beeton will know the correct mistletoe etiquette (a man must remove a berry after kissing a woman, and when there are no more berries the kissing must stop). They will be hot stuff at board games, whose sales are booming (up 10% in the first six months of this year). And naturally these traditionalists will at some point in the holiday make time to see a pantomime.

Ian Liston, founder of the production company Hiss & Boo, says more people than ever are going to pantos. “We are breaking box-office records, selling tens of thousands more tickets than last year. As a producer my feeling is that I’m going to have a very happy Christmas indeed.” When Pamela Anderson, once the star of Baywatch, the most-watched programme in the world, is appearing in Aladdin in Wimbledon, you know panto is thriving.

No less traditionally, some 24m people are considering being part of a religious service this year, according to new research by the Bible Society. For many, this will involve nothing more arduous than listening to carols on the radio, but some 12m say they are thinking about attending church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day – 2m more than went last year.

So what presents do these traditionalist give? Well, watch out Bridget Jones, the Christmas jumper is enjoying a renaissance. Erica Ratcliffe, 38, set up the Christmas Jumper Company last year after failing to find a satisfactory specimen for her husband, David. This year she has been overwhelmed with orders.

The spend-to-forget Christmas Why let the small matter of the worst global recession since the 1930s spoil your Christmas? Since November, Claridge’s hotel in London has been charging £45 per person for festive afternoon teas – and been fully booked by people coming to the West End for shopping trips.

At Selfridges, up the road, they are experiencing “the Christmas of Me”. Rather than spend all their hard-earned money on others, people are buying gifts for themselves, typically jewellery, lingerie, accessories and spa treatments.

Theo Fennell, the jeweller, has had several cases over the past few weeks of women buying rings priced at £10,000, and watches for twice as much. “We know these are gifts for themselves as when gift wrap has been offered it has been declined. ‘It’s for me’ has been the response,” says a spokesman.

Lingerie women buy for themselves includes £500 knicker-and-bra sets and handbags from Balenciaga and Mulberry.

High-end holiday destinations remain as busy as ever, says Chris Haslam, the Sunday Times travel expert. “If you think of the really top end, the chalet companies that are run by ex-City boys for City boys are doing all right. I phoned somebody recently and expected her to say there were bargains but the super-top-end has been unaffected and people are continuing to travel. Expensive safari companies are doing okay as well.”

Champagne sales are also up, with Sainsbury’s reporting a 30% rise compared with last year. And Waitrose says sales of its most luxurious turkeys and Christmas puddings are both 50% up.

Against a general mood of hostility towards the wealthy, people who have pots of cash are tending to spend it discretely. Steve Phillips (not his real name) is a senior investment banker who believes that consumption has necessarily become less conspicuous.

“There is undoubtedly a raised embarrassment factor about still having the ability to purchase what you want whenever you want it,” he says.

At Christmas, this embarrassment plays out within the family. “You can be massively well meaning but it can come across as crass,” says Phillips. “If your brother has given you a Rolex and you gave him a CD, what would you think? If you can’t give it reciprocally it isn’t enjoyable.” Quite.

The crunch Christmas

For some people, there’s no hiding it – Christmas this year is about sheltering from the consumerist storm.

They are the people who saw Friday’s snow as the perfect opportunity to extend their time off at Christmas by a day.

They are the people who bought up the entire stock of John Lewis’s “austerity” Christmas trees, comprising brown paper wrapped around wire, as long ago as November.

And the ones who are taking advantage of some supermarkets’ special offers on charity Christmas cards. A number have offered so-called bogof – buy one get one free – deals on the cards, which means the charity they are supporting receives just 5% of the cards’ original retail price.

Christmas this year will be austere, almost certainly in front of the telly, probably watching the BBC’s Royle Family special on Christmas Day, possibly without a flicker of recognition that the TV-obsessed family bears any resemblance to their own.

1421 words. First published 20 December 2009. © Times Newspapers Ltd.

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