independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Crazy for Christmas

We can't hold a Christmas candle to the Dutch at football, or oil painting, or policing our banks, but when it comes to the annual yuletide blowout we knock the stockings off our neighbours in the Netherlands.

That is what the latest spending figures would have us believe.

Every year, auditing giant Deloitte publishes a survey of Christmas spending trends across Europe, and just about every year Ireland tops the poll and the Dutch come over as the continent's Scrooges.

This year is no exception. The figures suggest the average Irish household will spend €965, with €500 going on gifts, €288 on food and €177 on socialising.

This puts us way ahead of the second-placed Swiss, who will blow €816, and the citizens of Luxembourg who'll fork out €815. The Dutch, meanwhile, come over as mean-spirited party-poopers, spending a paltry €287.

But all is not as it seems. On further investigation, it turns out that the Irish and the Dutch snug up quite closely when mid-winter arrives. Our shared goal is a sense of wellbeing, our perceived differences mostly a matter of timing.

Anne-Marie Norp is an Irish woman who married Dutchman Toon and settled in The Hague 15 years ago, where the couple are raising two young children, Oliver and Caitlin.

She explains: "The Dutch don't do Christmas. They have their own traditional festival of Sinterklaas, where Saint Nicholas travels from Spain to bring gifts to children on his birthday, December 6. Children in The Netherlands, and large parts of Belgium and Germany, get their presents on December 5.

"It would be wrong to think that Dutch kids get short-changed. They get a fortune spent on them just like Irish kids. One difference between the Dutch Sinterklass and the Irish Christmas is that adults who don't have young kids don't make a big deal of Sinterklass.

"Some adults will participate in a 'surprise', like a kris-kringle, where you'll pull a name out of a hat and buy a gift for one person."

She adds: "You're not comparing like-with-like when you say the Irish put more into Christmas than the Dutch. At the same time, over the past 10 years I've seen Christmas catch on a bit more here, especially in Randstad which has lots of foreigners.

"There are more adverts and more gifts in shop windows these days, but the notion of celebrating Christmas is largely driven by commercial interests.

"Most Dutch kids will get no presents at Christmas, and for those who do it will be something small. For the Dutch, Christmas is mostly about eating. The Dutch have very modest, frugal tastes. At a wedding, the couple won't expect you to pay more than €30 for a wedding gift. That applies to all celebrations."

After 20 years in Berlin, Dubliner Niall Hennessy urges similar caution when it comes to statistics placing the Germans well below Irish on the spenders list.

He says: "The Germans invented the Christmas tree 600 years ago, and Christmas markets are huge social and commercial events here. The Germans spend less, partly because they're careful with money, and partly because they put a huge effort into home baking for Christmas, which means less spending but certainly not less partying. Christmas is just as big a deal in Germany as in Ireland."

The statistics might distort the picture, but they don't entirely lie. Our Christmas spending has become extravagant to a point that would shock earlier generations. A century ago, the must-have gift on sale in Arnotts was... a new umbrella!

We can pinpoint 1998 as the year we really broke the bank for the first time. Ireland's newspapers were clogged with ads for Christmas winter sun breaks, and not just in the Canaries. Florida, Mexico and Thailand were suddenly on Santa's list.

The spending bug bit deeper in 1999, the first internet shopping Christmas proper, when the online stores got their act together after a disastrous 1998 when countless Irish gifts got stuck halfway down the chimney of cyberspace.

The madness peaked on Christmas Eve 2005 when world media reported with a mix of horror and envy that our tiny population were splurging €20m every hour on frivolities.

Dan McGuinness is MD of retail analysts Catalyst Marketing. He argues that the stats that make us out to be Europe's biggest spenders mask a new prudence.

He says: "Whether we're in boom or bust, this is always a miserable, dark, cold time of year and people need a lift. Six years ago, people were going mad, bingeing in New York, but sanity has returned. The price of clothes, electrical goods and other goods has dropped in real terms, so we're seeing a different sort of spending pattern with people looking for, and getting, value for money."

For Limerick University Psychology lecturer Wijnand van Tilburg, you can't put a price on the emotional pick-me-up Christmas provides.

Prof Tilburg says: "Nostalgia is an important feature of many Christmas celebrations. The experience of nostalgia is 'bittersweet' and involves both a sentimental longing for the past as well as feeling connected to significant others.

"Generally, nostalgia makes people feel better, it increases feelings of social connectedness, and it even fosters a greater sense of meaning in life. Moreover, nostalgic reverie helps to cope with challenges such as loneliness and boredom."

And when it comes to putting a human value on the season – whether it's Sinterklaas or Santa Claus – we're all singing from the same hymn sheet.

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