Is it just me, or does the fretting about Christmas presents arrive earlier every year? By early November, it’s difficult to miss the adverts from major retailers, subtly telling us to spend and then spend some more.
Drawing up a list of people for whom one feels obliged to buy presents can induce a gnawing anxiety. Expensive gifts must be lavished, we are told, on immediate family, extended family, godchildren – not to mention the office Secret Santa. And then there’s the price of Christmas activities: the ice-skating, the office restaurant meals, the pantomimes for the kids.
All wonderful things – but they come with a price tag attached. For my family it’s somewhat complicated: my wife and I celebrate our wedding anniversary in December, and then it’s my birthday in the new year. When I was a parish priest, with five young children, it was a particular challenge ensuring there was enough money to last the month. We learnt that it was vitally important to plan ahead, to decide on a budget and stick to it.
It’s no surprise that January can be a cruel month when it comes to finances as credit card bills land on the doormat and the cash machine informs us we have exceeded the overdraft limit. For some, the financial pressures of Christmas put enormous strain on their relationships: parents argue with one another and get more cross with their kids.
But does it have to be like this? Don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas– including the giving and receiving of gifts. Despite having played Scrooge in a parish Christmas play (quite convincingly, my parishioners told me), I don’t, in real life, respond “Bah humbug” when someone tells me how much they love Christmas. But I don’t think it makes me Scrooge to suggest that, in order to have a great Christmas, we need not run up crippling debts.
The origin of Christmas gifts lies in the Christian tradition that says God gave his son, Jesus, as a gift to bring us life; we reflect that generosity by giving gifts to each other. Of course, no gift, however pricey, can truly reflect the gift God gave the world in sending Jesus to share our suffering on the cross, bear the weight of our wrongdoing and offer us the hope of life.
However, our gifts can, in small ways, reflect and point to the self- giving love of God. But the most meaningful gifts are about expressing life, not luxury. This is especially true if, as money-saving expert Martin Lewis told us in these very pages recently, people feel pressured into tit-for-tat giving at Christmas – buying something equally as luxurious as that which they’ve been given.
There is nothing wrong with giving something small, something that is meaningful and reminds the person that you care for them – something from a charity shop, perhaps. It also gives the recipient the freedom to buy you some- thing similarly small but meaningful.
And giving need not involve any financial expenditure at all. You can give your time – that increasingly precious and rare commodity. Offering to babysit for the time-pressed parents next door, so they can enjoy a rare night out together. Spending an evening or two serving food at a homeless shelter. Inviting the older person in your street who lives alone to join your family for Christmas lunch. Some of the best Christmasses we as a family have enjoyed have been when we’ve invited someone for Christmas lunch who would otherwise have been on their own.
So there are ways of cutting the bill for Christmas and not waking on Boxing Day with a sense of dread about the bills that will come through the letterbox in the new year. You don’t need a large bank balance, or a stratospheric credit-card limit, to show generosity. You can be generous in a way that shows love and affection, rather than trying to buy it. And, of course, in February, Lent arrives – the perfect antidote.
A very happy fret-free Christmas to you all!