At Christmas, thanks in no small part to Charles Dickens, our thoughts naturally turn to those who are struggling. I always think of my paternal grandfather at this time of year, who would donate each Christmas to the Salvation Army, in a show of gratitude for their care of my grandmother, who was born in one of their homes.
I have continued the tradition since he died. Others donate too, or volunteer at homeless shelters, give to food banks. In London, the charity St Mungo’s will be hosting Christmas dinner for 200 people at Euston station, which will be decked out in festive glory. In Stockport, 35-year-old Natalie Lek is cooking 200 turkey dinners for people spending the day alone, as she herself did last year when her children spent Christmas with their father. These acts of generosity inspire many of us.
When you are poor, it can affect every part of your life. Your physical and mental health suffers, and if you have children, so do theirs. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 37% increase in child poverty in Britain due to welfare cuts. The Children’s Trust found that many children in London will receive fewer Christmas presents this year than the average British family pet, which gets £22 worth. The Young Women’s Trust released figures last week saying that one in three young parents struggle to afford Christmas. The universal credit catastrophe means that many claimants won’t get their benefit money until after the festive season.
When you’re surrounded by consumption and materialism while wondering how you can make your money last long enough to feed yourself and your children, let alone buy them presents, the despair can be too much.
“One Christmas was especially tough as I was pregnant, so the usual skipping meals and cutting corners in December wasn’t really an option,” one woman told me. “The toughest part is that the ‘joy’ of the season is ultimately replaced with stress and anxiety, and it doesn’t dissipate the second the wee ones unwrap their gifts, it lingers. You even find yourself worrying about next Christmas earlier and earlier each year, and God help you if you’re still paying off last year.”
This is echoed by Ruth Patrick, the author of For Whose Benefit? The Everyday Realities of Welfare Reform. “My research with people living in poverty found that Christmas and birthdays are flashpoints, where the pressure to buy presents and cook special meals is often simply unmanageable given the financial hardship that individuals face,” she says.
“The people I spoke to were often desperately worried and anxious about Christmas and felt guilty, especially when they could not afford to buy their children presents or participate in family meals and events. In this way, families living in poverty are too often excluded from mainstream celebrations of the festive season.”
When I think back to the Christmases I spent growing up when my family were on benefits, I don’t remember feeling lonely or even particularly poor, and that is thanks in large part to the efforts of my mum. Somehow every year she managed to conceal her worry about money and make it special. Our presents were second-hand, and some years we’d have chicken instead of turkey, but it didn’t matter. We had a cassette of the Manchester Boys’ Choir singing Christmas carols that my grandfather had taped from a record. We made our own decorations. Mum would scour charity shops for months beforehand to find the perfect gifts for me and my brother. Once I turned 18, we’d buy one special bottle of booze.
Emily Morris, a writer from Manchester with an 11-year-old, is a veteran at getting by at Christmas. This year she compiled the Skint Gift Guide. “Magic outweighs material goods,” she says. “Lying about Santa is controversial, but if your kids get you, they will know why you did it and still trust you. I sifted white glitter on to the carpet in shape of footprints, causing absolute amazement.”
She baked her own cakes. One year the tree was £2 from a charity shop; this year, it was donated by someone in her street’s Facebook group. “The pressure to have this console or those trainers kicks in when kids get older. [My] son knows this is not an option so never asks. He has been raised to know that the latest version isn’t always the best … He wants a denim jacket to sew patches on to this year. I asked him if he minded it being second-hand and he looked at me like I was daft and said ‘Of course not’.”
So if you’re poor this Christmas and worrying about disappointing your children, take heart. As Morris says, cheesy as it sounds, it’s about magic and love, and most kids know this. There are so many things you can do to make it special. And if you’re not poor but know someone who is, there are things that you can do. It’s the generosity of other people that comes through at this time of year.
The local plumber who unfroze our pipes for a discount, the friend of my mum’s who came round with a bottle of wine (they were tipsy by 4pm on Christmas Eve, dancing with us to the Beatles) … you don’t have to buy the prize turkey, as Scrooge does, to make someone feel that little bit more comfortable and less excluded – and they’ll never forget it.
• The fee from this article will be donated to the Salvation Army.
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