‘What do you want for Christmas?’
I used to have a million answers to that one; these days I’m more likely to say, ‘I don’t need anything.’ Hah! It always drove me mad when my parents said it, but I’ve started to come around to their way of thinking. Perhaps it’s age-related. Perspectives change over time, after all. When I was little, I didn’t have the faintest idea what my mum was going through, raising two kids on her own. How could I? In my own strange-brained way, I never questioned any of it. Never sought to learn why some people had more money than others, why I didn’t have a dad, why Mum was so fierce. Life was life, and this was ours. We made do.
But I knew what is meant to want more.
I grew up in the nineteen eighties, that fire-sale decade of artificiality, greed, and seemingly-inevitable thermo-nuclear conflict. Everything Must Go. It didn’t matter what you had in your life, what mattered was what you were getting next. Credit-cards were sold as a thing to be desired in and of itself, proof of your devotion to the great god of Capitalism. Your debt proved ambition, dedication, self-confidence—and yeah, it was all pretty fucked up. Socio-political and economic historians could be define and explain this cultural psychosis far better than me, I’m sure. All I knew as a kid was that the world was full of desirable Stuff TM and *we couldn’t afford any of it.
Mum grew up on a small farm, so she was well used to the practicality poverty brings. You mended whatever you could, saved up for the things you needed, and left the fripperies to those who could afford them. Check that – she did allow herself one luxury: a single Mars bar every week, chopped into sections and kept in the fridge. (She’d make that bastard last too, and woe-betide us kids if we tried to snag a piece.) Things changed when my step-dad came along; Mum got a sparkle to her eyes that we’d rarely seen before. It was the light of love but, looking back, there was something else as well: a sense of relief. Burdens lifted, emotionally and financially.
As a butcher, part of his wage came in the form of meat, and we began to eat much heartier meals. I never thought of myself as particularly malnourished before, but high-calorie meals became the de facto way my parents demonstrated care. We could even have second helpings if we wanted. We started to get desserts regularly too, a bag of sweets every weekend, cans of fizzy pop in the fridge… It was the high life in more ways than one. And come Christmas, the feasting was epic. It’s all-too easy to equate happiness with the sating of appetite when you’re haunted by the memory of going without. You develop a wolfing mentality, grabbing what you can, when you can because it might not last.
The accumulation of Stuff to me was just as instinctive as over-eating, for much the same reason. At Christmas time, my brother and I now found ourselves showered with presents – with pillowcases instead of stockings – stuffed full of gifts. None of it was **high value, but the sheer quantity was overwhelming to a kid who’d once prized the disembodied head of an ‘Eagle-Eye’ Action Man, bought at a car-boot sale. I had zero self-control when it came to pocket money—not that I had much. Whatever I did get, I’d blow immediately on whatever alluring item caught my eye. One particularly scornful classmate dubbed my collection as ‘plastic crap’, and they weren’t wrong. It littered my bedroom floor, filled drawers under my bed. Useless rubbish, the lot of it.
As I grew older, my spending addiction shifted to second-hand books from charity shops, bought in multitudes, with a regularity that was impossible to keep up despite my prolific reading habit. When my student grant came through in the first year of uni, I went completely off the rails, burning through it on all kinds of crap. It took the sage words and gentle persuasion of my wife (then girlfriend) to begin rethinking and moderating my behaviour. In recent years I’ve sent 20-30 big boxes full of books back to the charity shops, and now we’re both living and working from home, the accretion of junk is pressing in upon us both. It’s time for a major de-cluttering.
I’m not an old man yet, not by a long chalk, but I’d like to think I’ve grown a bit in wisdom over the years. Here’s my latest gem: Stuff is nonsense. (Yeah, yeah, Buddha got there centuries before me. I’ve always have been a little slow.) Shorn of need, the vast majority of things we own hold little-to-no actual value. It’s all plastic crap, destined for landfill; it’s all refined sugar, rotting our teeth and our souls; it’s all just a drug and a salve for people so ground down by drudgery that any small luxury feels worthwhile, no matter how short-lived. Black Friday, the New Year Sales and all that bollocks is just a marketing plot to enrich the already-wealthy, feeding our appetites with empty calories that leave us feeling simultaneously stuffed and hungrier than ever before.
Ugh. I ranted there. Sorry about that. It was not my intention – though ‘Stuff is nonsense’ will probably be the title of this post now. I’m in a weird place, both financially and emotionally. As a freelancer with a new business, I’ve earned less this year than at any time since graduation. I’m looking at Christmas this year (and all the cynical money-grabbing motions of the multi-nationals) with a queasy kind of resentment, feeling ill-equipped to deal with any of it. Yet at the same time, we’re cheerfully looking forward to having our kitchen replaced next year, having the grand arches around our windows re-painted, converting our apartment so our daughter has a bigger bedroom while we snag her old one as an office. We’ve even booked a short holiday with some dear friends.
Money is not the all-encompassing problem it used to be for li’l Dion Polak, not since he met the love of his life. (And I recognise my privilege here.) My wife has the savings to cover the big expenses, and my redundancy package is helping to support my little editing business as it starts to find its feet. I haven’t gone without since I was 9 years old, not really; I’ve never faced the gaping chasm of unemployment, nor the clerical machinery the UK Government uses to crush those unlucky enough to fall into it; I’ve never had to face the hardship Mum endured during my early years. My daughter has never been haunted by appetite. She rarely asks for anything because she rarely feels she needs anything. She’s content in a way I never was, yet she is not complacent. She recognises what is truly valuable, what is meaningful to her, and that rarely involves buying Stuff.
Where am I going with this? What’s the point of it all?
Well, there’s less than a month to go until Christmas (not forgetting the 13 other seasonal festivals celebrated at this time of year) and whatever pressure you’re feeling to spend is only going to increase. Take a breath if you can. Long and slow. Gift-giving is more than succumbing to adverts – of course it is – and I’m not saying we should ***ditch it entirely. Saving up to give your loved ones something special is a wonderful way to show your appreciation. And getting yourself something nice once in a while? Well, why not, dammit? We’ve all gone through some pretty hard times. But please don’t bleed yourself dry for it. Let Bezos and the other vampires go hungry for a change.
* Money can’t actually buy you happiness, but it solves pretty much every other problem. How much better would life be without having to worry about it all the time?
** My parents’ joint-income remained pretty low until Mum retrained as a teacher in her forties. Best decision she ever made. It gave her self-confidence and a sense of fulfilment that lives within her to this day.
*** For myself, I’m buying local this year, and I’m buying less. I’m also trying to buy more meaningfully. If you can, please put your gift money into the hands of sole traders and small businesses – those for whom an extra sale means the world.
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