Lifestyle

Friday 19 September 2014

Party through the pain

Singing about your ding-a-ling and tying yellow ribbons round the old oak tree are just two reasons why living your life through Seventies pop lyrics is wrong. But in these recessionary times there's one exception -- because I wish it could be Christmas every day.

The silent majority that adore the festive season desperately need to stand up for Santa. Christmas 2008 has barely made it to this point. It is currently staggering to the finish line like an Irish athlete at the Beijing Olympics.

Up and down the country, Christmas parties have been cancelled, Pat Kenny got the Late Late Toy Show embroiled in controversy, while retailers are hysterical with fear.

Even our party-animal Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, isn't hosting an official party for his 200 staff in the Department of the Taoiseach this year. It was enough to have Fine Gael TD Michael Ring anxiously pondering the future of Christmas itself.

"I suppose the next thing that the Taoiseach will be asking for is that we suspend Christmas altogether, and we'll be told that Santa is not coming this year," he commented wryly.

We hardly need more proof, but you know there's something seriously wrong when the Late Late Toy Show becomes the subject of a major controversy.

Normally, the only talking points about the programme would revolve around which naff Christmas jumper Pat might wear on the night. But this Christmas is so crazy, Pat Kenny got himself embroiled in a Sinead O'Connor-style controversy and ripped up two Late Late Toy Show tickets live on air.

Pat lost his rag because competition winner Barbara Heavey from Cork turned down the offer of Toy Show tickets because she "wasn't particularly interested". That got Pat's tinsel in a right knot.

Nearly as unusual as Pat letting his guard drop on the Late Late Show is the global credit crunch, which has snookered our spending plans for the festive season. Out on the high street, consumers and retailers have been hit by so many problems, you'd think a certain Dr Seuss baddie had scuppered the end-of-year celebrations.

Economists reckon retailers are facing a perfect storm -- cash-strapped consumers are not spending, just as the cost of the goods in shops, bought in from foreign manufacturers, rockets.

The global economy isn't the only enemy of festivity. The credit crunch has nearly consigned the Christmas present to the past and, in doing so, it has found a welcome ally in the Irish upper-middle class. Their sniffiness about celebrating Christmas is similar to their nose-holding about other Germanic traditions we've imported, such as Lidl and Aldi.

These are the people who get indignant about frilly Communion dresses, extravagant weddings and the attraction of Daniel O'Donnell concerts. If they buy Christmas pressies, it will have to be something miserable; say, a voucher for a half-share in a camel for some Bedouin. Festive decorations for them would involve a minimalist inflatable Christmas tree from Muji. That's if they don't leave the country altogether on some cut-price package to Morocco and have a sweltering Christmas dinner consisting of overpriced couscous in a restaurant in Agadir.

Indeed, they'd frown upon any shindig at which people have a good time.

The Christmas Grinches aren't confined to Ireland -- oh no, they're also out in force in the UK.

Churchmen are always top of the list when it comes to Christmas complaints. OK, they at least have a point. For them, it must feel like their birthday party has been hijacked by everyone else, but that's not an excuse for being quite so miserable.

The Church of England Bishop of Reading, Stephen Cottrell, has said that people should stop sending so many Christmas cards, and cease the practice of giving expensive presents as well. He reckons the perfect Christmas gift is a jar of homemade marmalade, or some pickled onions.

Compared with the prospect of making and giving preserved fruit and vegetables as Christmas presents, crammed department stores on Christmas Eve sound positively appealing.

This sniffiness is part of the anti-consumerist cottage industry that has been nurtured in the Noughties, when buoyant economies made it easy to worry about big corporations and nefarious marketing campaigns. Books such as No Logo by Naomi Klein and, more recently, Affluenza by Oliver James, have targeted shopping as the root of much, if not all, evil.

James, who's a psychologist, blames consumerism for the high rates of mental illness in the western world.

"The Affluenza virus is a set of values which increases our vulnerability to psychological distress, placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions," he opines.

James's book was published only last year, but already I feel all nostalgic for the old days when we could actually acquire money and possessions.

This year, businesses were under so much pressure that they were forced to fast-forward their festive cheer in a frantic attempt to avoid wipeout -- marketeers have coined the term 'Christmas creep' for the phenomenon of tinsel and baubles appearing as early as October -- and this didn't go down well with the seasonal scrooges.

By early winter our Christmas Grinches were on the job, eager to criticise the first sign of an eight-foot inflatable Santa or an LED reindeer.

The Grinches find a handy outlet in the Irish Times letters page, taking up the slack from birdwatchers who pen letters entitled 'Is This a Record?' about spotting the first swallow of the year. This year, already outraged by October, the letter-writers were putting pen to paper about the symptoms of the early outbreak of Christmas.

Here's just one example from the aforementioned paper's letters page.

"Madam, -- I have just returned home from a visit to Brown Thomas in Grafton Street, Dublin. Several staff members were busy putting up Christmas trees and filling counterspace with decorations. Can anybody explain why it is necessary to bring Christmas forward by three months? There should be a law against it! -- Yours, etc, Laura."

That's strong stuff from Laura. Actually, I can't see the point in taking up cell space in Mountjoy with some black-clad, Jimmy-Choo-wearing BTs assistant who's been locked up for possession of red tinsel, or for inflating bearded gentlemen.

Along with premature decorations and tree erection, Grinches really loathe premature Christmas tunes. Instead of a 'down with that sort of thing' protest, they opted for a 'turn down that sort of thing' approach, forcing BTs to stop playing Christmas carols through its external loudspeaker this November. Dublin City Council moved in following complaints by members of the public that Brown Thomas had the audacity to play classics such as Silent Night and Away in a Manger.

But prohibition didn't work in the Great Depression of Thirties America, and it's not going to work this Christmas either. Not if the pro-Christmas lobby has its way.

The reality is that 2008 is definitely the year for a Triple-X Xmas, a vulgar tack-fest of neon-flashing rooftop reindeers with bells on. Most of us would be quite happy to party our way out of recession, if we could only turn a deaf ear to those I call the Moving Cribs and their determination to keep Christmas down.

A full-on Christmas is crucial to get us through depths of midwinter -- it always has been, stretching back 5,000 years to our Celtic ancestors. Newgrange was clearly a pre-Christian financial-stimulus package utilising building works to literally create some light at the end of the tunnel.

It's evidence of how Christmas is persistently popular in this sainted isle. A survey by Deloitte recently revealed that Ireland is the biggest Christmas per capita spender in Europe, well ahead of the UK in second place, and Spain, in third.

The average Irish household will spend €1,354 this month -- though, sadly, that's 5.3 per cent down on our spending last Christmas.

"Last year, the survey found consumers were still willing to spend despite a gloomy outlook on the economy. But this year, the purse strings are finally being pulled tight," a Deloitte spokesperson said.

All right, it needs to be admitted now that even for Yuletide addicts, the Christmas build up has been a tad hysterical.

As letter-writer Laura says, department stores were festooned with decorations even before the Halloween tat was cold on the ground, in a vain attempt to kick start consumer spending. Among the many methods of mass distraction that retailers have resorted to, in an attempt to make us forget economic realities, include Santa abseiling down the front wall of Clerys department store, along with unseasonably early January sales.

Panicky retailers, who usually host sales in January, slashed their prices in November. New Year sales? Sale launch dates now seem to coincide with little more than a full moon or the boss's birthday.

And in a vain effort to evoke Christmas past, aka a time when maxing out your fifth credit card didn't seem like a bad idea, retailers have turned to somebody who's in nearly as much demand as Santa this Christmas, another portly, grey-haired gentleman with a distinctive mode of transport -- sometimes wheelchair-bound former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

He's been photographed warbling with Palestrina choirs and was even invited to turn on the lights at the Shelbourne Hotel.

Besides Bertie and abseiling Santas, there has been that nationwide outbreak of premature Christmas-tree erection in an attempt to persuade a nation of shoppers with a collective headache that shopping is still satisfying. No stunt has been too bold for the lighting ceremonies of our main-street Christmas trees.

In Limerick, Kiwi rugby legend Jonah Lomu was drafted in to switch on their unseasonably early tree, crafted in steel from the old Thomond Park stand.

Dublin City Council and local businesses decided to splash out €1m on new lights to lure shoppers to the capital. But the early switching on of the capital's Christmas lights soon developed into a 1916-style last stand by the under-pressure retailers.

Dublin's Lord Mayor, Eibhlin Byrne, announced that the Christmas lights were to be turned on almost three weeks early on November 9. Last year, they weren't switched on until November 27.

She said the early ceremony was a call to "civic patriotism", rallying shoppers to spend their Christmas cash in Dublin rather than on Fifth Avenue.

In a stirring statement, the Mayor urged us to hug a high-street retailer, and shop for Ireland. "I would be concerned that if we don't promote Dublin shopping, the likes of Grafton Street will diminish. I would encourage people to show civic patriotism and make a special effort to do some focus shopping in the city," said the Mayor.

Indeed, patriotism was also invoked when Southern shoppers headed north in their droves to do their Christmas shopping. Studies revealed that up to 40 per cent of shoppers in Northern shopping centres were from the Republic, and that they were saving up to 30 per cent on purchases.

As to the Mayor, the focus quickly went off focus shopping when her patriotic rallying cry foundered. The O'Connell Street tree, a 60ft steel structure made up of 100,000 energy-efficient bulbs, came from France, having been designed by the French firm Blachere, which, in the past, have been responsible for lighting up the Eiffel Tower.

The Mayor got roasted like a chestnut on an open fire on radio programmes and, of course, the Christmas Grinches were quick to write their letters to the Irish Times.

"Madam, -- Is it ironic or just plain stupid that the premature lighting of the Christmas tree in Dublin is described as a call to 'civic patriotism' by the Lord Mayor to encourage shopping in Dublin city, when the very same (artificial) tree is designed in, and imported from, France? Should civic patriotism not start at home? Words fail me, sometimes. -- Yours, etc, Robert.

With words failing even inveterate letter writers, I had to see the tree-lighting-up ceremony for myself. It was surreal to stand in the middle of O'Connell Street on November 9 with several hundred onlookers listening to a DJ on a trailer playing Happy Christmas (War is Over), waiting for the Mayor to turn on the Christmas lights with a mock-dynamite plunger. She wasn't the only one making the effort. Neighbouring businesses on O'Connell Street had already attempted to get into the spirit of things, even before the Mayor lit up the premature erection. Models of restraint such as the Ann Summers store were stretching out the Christmas season like an ill-fitting PVC catsuit by displaying their Mrs Claus outfits in the shop window.

The lighting ceremony turned out to be a heart-warming affair, with a Special Olympics choir proudly belting out Mamma Mia before the dignitaries' speeches and the official Mayoral plunging. And sure enough, as the tricolour fluttered over the GPO, we were urged to take our arms to the local shops and weigh them down with Christmas shopping as our patriotic duty.

The tree may be French and not very spectacular, the shops may be English, the patriotism angle might be bull, but at least they were trying to inject a bit of positivity.

And who can blame businesses for trying? Retail sales were down by more than five per cent during the third quarter of this year, the largest drop since 1983. One despondent business leader was quoted recently as saying: "It's as if the tap was turned off around February, and it has stayed off."

If our retail spending is similar to 1983, then the future could be very bleak indeed. I don't remember much in the way of retail outlets in Ireland 25 years ago besides Roches Stores, the odd Dunnes, and corner shops run by ubiquitous women in housecoats. Which begs the question: why is the Government as Grinch-like as the rest? Their approach isn't, we now suspect, even good economic policy.

Social Welfare minister Mary Hanafin had to fight to get the usual Christmas bonus paid. Our leaders raised VAT from 21 per cent to 21.5 per cent in the 2009 Budget, while the British Government responded to the downturn by cutting its VAT rate to 15 per cent.

The Australian government, meanwhile, launched a multi-billion dollar package in October, which included cash payments for pensioners, carers, first-time buyers and low-and middle-income families. Families in Oz received a payment of €500 per child. The cash came in in the second week of December -- just in time for the Christmas shopping period.

Spending your way out of trouble is an option Barack Obama is embracing across the pond. The US President-elect has revealed that he could spend up to 2 trillion dollars on revitalising the US economy. He also wants to create 2.5 million new jobs and launch the biggest public-works programme since the New Deal of the Thirties.

Our Government needs to be brave and encourage us to spend our way out of the recession. And what better time to do it?

And while we wait for the shiny penny to drop, we can all be a little bit Barack, doing our smaller-scale bit to get back to where we once belonged. The choice is there in the run-up to Christmas. Start making your homemade marmalade now, or hit the shops and start spending like a FAS official on a junket, because your country needs you -- to spend.

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