Christmas is a little less than a month away. The most beautiful season of the year supposedly brings joy and festive cheer, but for some, it inevitably transforms into a nightmare of epic proportions. Come December, the pressure is on (especially on women as the main family carers) to recreate the postcard perfect Christmas, so cleverly depicted by the media. And nothing quite takes its toll as the seasonal round of ‘gift giving’, especially in households where the family budget is already stretched to the limit.
I don’t want to sound like the Maltese version of the Grinch, but a tear-jerking £50 budget Christmas advert titled ‘Love is a Gift’ which has gone viral, got me thinking long and hard about this well-intentioned tradition. In our rabid race to create the best Christmas experience for our loved ones, we are running ourselves ragged both emotionally and financially. But it’s not only for our spouses, children or immediate family. Over the past few years, we’ve taken this ‘gift-giving’ lark to ludicrously new heights; neighbours’ children, the school bus driver, our children’s teachers (more on that later) and what practically feels like anyone and everyone we have ever come across in our daily life.
Let’s ignore for a moment the financial strain all this seasonal generosity brings about and imagine that money is not an issue. Buying presents is time-consuming and nerve-wracking, at least if you’re one of those people who thinks carefully and thoroughly on what a pleasing gift for the receiver would be. Before the advent of online shopping, I have spent many a precious weekend trudging through the streets of Sliema and Valletta in search for the perfect gift for X or Y – precious, limited time which would’ve been better spent with my then young children. But then where to draw the line? No one, especially in a close-knit community such as ours wants to look stingy, and so another nightmare few weeks beckon, wherein everyone and his dog gets to get a Christmas pressie, come what may.
But I suspect that this ever-growing trend of gifts-for-all has more to do with the status of the giver, than wanting to treat the person in question. When my eldest started school more than two decades ago, it was a question of gifting the teacher at Christmas with a small token. By the time my youngest finished secondary school a couple of years ago, these tokens had morphed into full-blown designer items for the class tutor, which the children (or more accurately, their parents) had forked out a sizeable amount towards. To exacerbate the problem, at secondary school, children have a different teacher for every subject and most parents are made to feel curmudgeonly if they do not at least present a small ‘token’ of their gratitude to these ‘other’ teachers, and so the Christmas presents’ list gets even longer and longer. It is by no means the teachers’ fault that our tendency for keeping up with the Joneses has taken us this far, but it is very, very easy to get sucked into the one-upmanship and even more difficult to go against the tide.
But let’s look closer to home. Today’s children have it all, so why do we persist in giving them even more presents? Piles of expensive, useless rubbish that will never be loved or appreciated, soon to be forgotten long before the New Year sets in. Whatever happened to the kind of gifts children would cherish well into adulthood, the kind that they remember forever? This kind of senseless consumerism is something we can all plead guilty to, myself included, but which today, in hindsight, I believe is a problem on several fronts: it puts needless pressure, both emotional and financial on families who can’t really stump up, it adds up to even more unnecessary waste, but worst of all it sends the wrong message to our children.
But this is just the tip of a very dangerous iceberg. Christmas overspending is probably one of the main causes which sends consumer debt spiralling into the stratosphere. Really and truly, how much does Christmas have to cost? But it seems that for most us, Christmas is the time when regardless of budget, we seem to throw caution to the wind; it becomes a physical and psychological impossibility to pass a till, any till, for that matter, without making an unnecessary purchase, or two, or three. Even for the most sensible amongst us, it is a given, that no sooner the twinkly lights are up in the stores, that we’re handing over our hard-earned cash for some tacky bauble or tawdry knickknack. It seems as if the Christmas season has become one long, mad shopping spree, wherein we buy stuff we don’t need nor particularly want, probably with money we don’t even have.
When has Christmas gone so horribly wrong? The advert mentioned at the beginning of this article ends with the message ‘Love is a gift that lasts forever’, which is a noble ideal but one, which over time, we seem to have messed up its true meaning; confusing love with expensive gifts. Because, the true spirit of Christmas, lies elsewhere… The gift of kindness, of sharing, the precious gift of time, the gift of being emotionally present and switched on for our loved ones, these are the gifts which endure and which will forever leave an indelible mark on those we gift… and what’s more, they’re readily available, stowed quietly in our hearts, if only we take the time to look hard enough within ourselves…