Enjoying Christmas

F_DE15_SantaStrawbs.jpgCelebrating Christmas when you are living on little is a challenge, as much in your head as your bank account.

The expectations about Christmas are out of our control.

Christmas means: a holiday, schools out, a time when families get together (for better or worse), special foods, an occasion to eat luxury food, we give each other presents wrapped in special paper, we decorate our houses, there are special songs, church services are in the middle of the night, and for some, we actually go to Church.

Most of these things have financial implications. We might have to travel to get together with family, we might need to feed many more people than usual. Children and grandchildren expect presents.

Advertisers have a field day with this. We like to think we are too canny to be affected by advertising, but we are wrong. (Sorry, we are). Advertisers are masters at rearranging our thinking and our expectations. They create within us and within our family, friends and acquaintances what counts as “normal”, what counts as “enough”.


Each family has its own traditions for Christmas gifts — for some families it is the time that necessary expensive items are purchased, like a bike. For others it is an occasion for luxury or playful spending. “What did you get for Christmas?” is heard often in the following month amongst adults as well as children, and no-one wants to be embarrassed with their answer. Parents want to treat their children, and families living on little are no exception, indeed Christmas might be the one time in the year they really want to treat their children, to forget, for a day at least, that money is a problem.


Stonkered is a word you might only use at Christmas. You have eaten so much you need to snooze before you do anything else. The list of special Christmas foods is long. From roast lamb through raspberries to Christmas cake. We know we eat too much, if we can, but why do we do it?

Last year I decided to avoid stonkered. I made a list of favourite Christmas food and spread it out, a food version of the twelve days of Christmas.

Our debt is their profit

Many families end Christmas in debt, not just those living on little. Why do we spend more than we can afford? Because we can, if we have credit: the banks will up the credit limit on your credit card, no questions asked. Secondly because the advertisers have meddled with our heads, changed our expectations. Our debt is their profit.

Doing it different

Some families try to control the spending chaos by setting a limit such as $5 per present. Some arrange so you buy for only one person in the family. Some say handmade gifts only. These are families who want to step outside the advertisers’ spending frenzy. For families living on little these kinds of limits can feel second­rate, a matter of necessity not choice. What counts as “enough” is a very curly concept.

Acting outside the usual cultural expectations is difficult — buying only for one or spending less than $5 can feel “mean” in a climate where bigger and more is better.

Escaping the advertisers

First, think back on gifts. Do you remember what you gave your children? Ask your children what they got. What was remembered, valued? Remind yourself about the Christmas food last year: what was really worth the money and effort. Remind yourself of any debt you had after Christmas last year: was it worth it? (Sometimes it is.)

Ask your family what mattered most to them about the best Christmas they remember. If the best Christmas your family remembers was all about the food, ask if they would like to have the Christmas dollars spent on food instead of presents; they just might. Do the things that your family valued most, drop the others. Maybe your family is willing to have a go at the ‘hand-made’ only idea (it can be both fun and funny). Always remember that the ‘advertiser Christmas’ is about people making money out of you not about your family enjoying the season.

Add some luxury

Paradoxically, if you are living on little, you have easy access to luxury. Luxuries are the wonderful things you rarely get to experience. Living on little there are lots of things that are rarely experienced, and they don’t necessarily cost much. A couple of slices of bacon could be a luxury. Pavlova. Slices of ham off the bone. A leg of lamb for a roast. A bottle of wine. Fresh strawberries. You don’t get them often so you value them, taste them, enjoy them. Set aside the fact that other people can have these things any time. Remember instead that when you have them you experience luxury, and they just taste some meat, pies, wine or fruit. The more money people have the more they have to spend to experience luxury. Let’s take our compensations where we find them.

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

At its heart Christmas is about people and sharing. Well, actually it is about the birth of Christ and the pagan mid-winter solstice. Umm, summer solstice for us in this hemisphere. Children are on holiday, we tend to gather in families, and what we remember over the years are the people and what we did together, not the food nor the gifts.

Lets take it back from the advertisers. Make it our time. Let’s remember that what matters is people, people, people.