How to celebrate Christmas in style without blowing the budget
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This year Sheena Grant has taken a stance against commercialism and vowed to live a thriftier existence. This week she looks at how to look after the pennies at Christmas.
Back in the 1970s, when I was a child, my nana spent each Christmas with us, bringing with her what I always thought of as a healthy dose of festive party pooping.
We didn’t have a lavish Christmas – a few inexpensive stocking fillers and a main present under the tree – but to my nana, raised as one of seven children in rural Norfolk in the early 20th century, we were really quite spoilt.
However excited we were on Christmas morning there was no tearing wrapping paper off presents. It had to be removed by carefully releasing the sticky tape before handing the piece of intact paper to nana, who would fold it up for use another year.
And she would never tire of telling us how different Christmas was when she was a child. She considered herself lucky, she said, if she got an orange or an egg in her stocking.
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I would inwardly tut and raise my eyes skywards, in the way that young people do when someone older tries to tell them anything. What did she know? Well, 40 years later, I now realise, quite a lot actually.
Nana died in the early 1980s and I often wonder what she’d make of Christmas now. The sight of shoppers tussling over ‘Black Friday bargains’, as they did in many places earlier this month, and the orgy of consumption Christmas has now become would astonish and disgust her in equal measure, I suspect.
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It’s so all encompassing that even those of us who want to opt out and have a different kind of Christmas sometimes find it difficult to know how to begin.
This is particularly the case if you have children, especially children who watch commercial television, awash with images of every kind of toy and sparkly thing that you just must have for a ‘proper’ Christmas. Parents these days have to grapple with demands for ever more expensive bits of kit – games consoles and electrical gadgets, each costing several hundred pounds. I am officially the meanest mother in England because I refuse to get drawn into this. Virtual living is no kind of living in my book.
It’s almost impossible to feel you’re doing the right thing as a parent at Christmas: lavish them with gifts and you worry about making them materialistic and self-centred; try to limit their present bucket and you fear blighting one of the most magical times of childhood. And if you’re on a modest income, throw in the prospect of crippling debt. Whoever said it was the season to be jolly?
Last January there was a 39% increase on the previous year in numbers of people seeking help with Christmas debt problems. More than 23,800 turned to one online debt advice provider between Boxing Day, 2013 and January 2, 2014 alone.
This is no way to live but is there any alternative?
Well, yes, there is. Actually there’s more than one.
You could just cancel Christmas, as one family in America have reportedly done, making their children donate to charities instead and asking Santa to find someone who needs their presents more. I can’t help thinking that’s going a bit too far, although I sympathise with the lesson the parents are trying to instil. This year, I made my son raid his piggy bank to buy presents for his closest family members. We’ve also agreed he’s going to make a charity donation from his own money too, just to try and show him there is a wider world out there and not everyone gets to have the kind of Christmas it’s all too easy to take for granted if you’re one of the lucky ones.
Reader Deborah McKinley advocates a different kind of Christmas too. She shuns traditional food and never brings a tree into the house.
“There is one very positive thing that we can all do over the Christmas period that costs nothing,” she adds. “If the weather is good go for a walk in the country. See the bare trees and branches stand out in the winter sun and glory in the season’s beauty. One year we walked round Lavenham while everyone was eating their Christmas meal. We had the whole village to ourselves. It was magical and as the sun set, we went home to our meal, ending a perfect day.”
Here are some other ideas for having a Christmas that is more than a homage to consumerism.
Live within your budget
I think the best tip of all for having a Christmas you can afford is budget setting.
My son did that for his shopping and I have tried to do it for mine. I’ve yet to do my festive grocery shop but I’m going to set a budget for that too. Perhaps that way I’ll avoid the pitfalls of previous years when I have come home laden with every kind of alcohol, snack and sweet available. There is, after all, a difference between indulgence and over indulgence.
Cut back on present buying
Be honest, how many times have you opened a gift and had to call on skills of artifice you didn’t even know you had in order to feign surprise, delight, or even mild interest. I know it’s the thought that counts but maybe it’s time for a different thought: don’t buy presents you can’t afford for people who neither want nor need them.
For years, my extended family continued this ritual of gift giving. As the family expanded it got ever more expensive and difficult to know what to buy anyone. Lots of families do this. Believe it or not, I even know of someone with a relative who sends out pre-Christmas notes of things she doesn’t want. But still they carry on buying for each other. This year, we’ve called a halt and agreed that we will now buy presents for children only. It’s surprisingly liberating.
If you’re handy with a needle and thread or a pair of knitting needles, the possibilities are endless but if not, there are still many inexpensive culinary treats you can make – chocolates, truffles, fudge or toffee to name but a few. You could even use last year’s Christmas cards or wrapping paper to make a pretty gift box for them to go in. Buying attractive and useful storage jars for a few pounds and filling them with homemade jams and preserves also makes a good gift.
While we’re on the subject of making things, why not have a go at making your own decorations and crackers?
I made some ‘Merry Christmas’ bunting with a few scraps of material and a bit of festive fabric bought from my local sewing shop. It cost me less than £5 – about a third of the price of something similar I spotted at a Christmas market a few days before.
You can also make tree decorations from pine cones and glitter or by cutting shapes from homemade salt dough.
I’m going to have a go at making my own crackers this year, something my colleague, Steve, already does with a loo roll tube, tissue or crepe paper, a little gift to go inside and a homegrown joke. If you feel you really must have the ‘snap’ as you pull the cracker, these can be bought cheaply online (Steve doesn’t bother with this. He just shouts ‘bang’ as the cracker comes apart).
You can also make wreaths for your door and table centrepieces with a few cuttings of evergreen foliage.
We’ve economised on our Christmas tree this year, going for a small £10 fir from a local grower. I’ve always hated the waste of growing a tree just to cut it down, decorate it and then discard it so I’ve hatched a plan for future years. I’m going to buy a pot-grown seedling (you can do this for a few pounds) that will be brought into the house, in its pot, each year and returned to the garden, still in its pot, in the New Year.
Sell toys your children have outgrown
I’ve tried to do that this year to free up a bit of space as well as recouping a few pounds. You can either sell them privately or take them to somewhere that will sell them on your behalf, for a cut of the takings. You could, of course, give them to charity instead, in keeping with the season of goodwill.
On the high street
Be a sceptical shopper. Always make a list of what you intend to buy - and stick to it.
A lot of store loyalty cards offer returns that are so small it’s hardly worth the hassle of taking them out in the first place. I do, however, have a Co-op dividend card which usually nets me more than £50 each year, money I set aside for using on my Christmas food shopping.
If you’re sensible too you can benefit by using a credit card for your purchases. I have one from a major high street store that I pay off at the end of each month, so I never incur interest. I rack up points every time I use it, which translate into between £10 and £15 of vouchers every three months or so to spend instore. It keeps my son in school uniform, if nothing else.
Why spend a fortune on something that’s probably going to be ripped to shreds and binned (sorry nana)? Buy cheap wrapping paper, use last year’s or even the glossy pages of Sunday supplements to wrap presents. And, of course, never buy gift tags. Save the Christmas cards you were sent last year to cut up and use instead.
Use leftover meat and vegetables in curries, risottos, soups and stews. Be inventive – leftover sprouts make great bubble and squeak, cheeses can be used in pasta sauces or quiches.
Most council tips take old Christmas trees and shred them. You can also strip needles from the branches to make a pine-scented pot pourri or add to your compost bin.
Shred old wrapping paper to use as packaging around future, delicate gifts, give it to children for making collages or decorating storage boxes or notebooks.
Finally, freed from the clutches of material extravagance you can embrace the true spirit of the season.
Merry Christmas to you all.