Credit: Eva Merritt

Mistletoe and wine, consumerism ain’t fine

By Niamh Flanagan

Features Columnist Niamh Flanagan emphasises why we need to bin this particular Christmas tradition.

We are almost at Christmas day. The festive tension is palpable, Mariah Carey can be heard around every corner you turn, and every other shop window is festooned with red, green and gold. Whether you’re a tree up on the first day of November kind of person, someone who prefers to hold off till mid-December, or don’t celebrate Christmas at all, there is no escaping the deluge of lurid consumerist propaganda that descends every year. It has become impossible to turn on the TV, pop to the shop, or catch a bus without being aggressively advertised at. Of course, we live in a capitalist society, so it’s not as if advertisement and consumerism are unique to the festive period. But Christmas capitalism is capitalism with bells on. Quite literally. Accentuated by manufactured sentimentality, festive advertising is magnified by the emotional overtones of “Christmas spirit”. The month of December sees John Lewis tugging on our heart strings via pyjama-clad little boys, cartoon bears and moon-dwelling old men to really drill the message home that the most effective way to embrace the Christmas values of love, community and acceptance is to spend, spend, spend.

“Christmas capitalism is capitalism with bells on.”

Of course, Christmas genuinely is a sentimental and emotional time for many people. Particularly in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic – last year the festive period was significantly dampened by the imposition of tiers and legal restrictions upon our ability to mix with other households. Christmas 2020 saw grandparents spending the festive period estranged from their families, long distance couples forced to spend their Christmases apart, and countless other tableaus of isolation and loneliness in a time that should be spent in the company of loved ones. It is inevitable, therefore, that we as a nation are eagerly looking forward to Christmas 2021 as a means by which to compensate for the solemnity of last year with reinvigorated enthusiasm, joy, and merry making.

At the risk of sounding a little Voice of Doom-like, I do however feel that it is crucial we qualify this enthusiasm with a level of consideration around the manner in which we engage in said Christmas joy and merry making. With the backdrop of COP26 taking place during the month of November, we must be conscious of the grave warnings imparted around changes that must be undertaken to protect our planet from the impending climate crisis. General consensus from the climate activist community on the success of the conference is that it has not gone far enough. Greta Thunberg herself remarked that the Glasgow agreements were “very, very vague” and “contained many loopholes”, potentially signifying that we are fighting a “losing battle”.

As such, it is evident that we cannot rely on national leaders to make rational decisions in our best interests when it comes to tackling the climate crisis. This is not an opportunity for abject defeatism however, and we must continue to do everything we can to protect our planet, even in the face of elite incompetence. Of course, the ultimate responsibility lies with those in power as the ones with the means to make meaningful and large-scale change, but their incompetence does not absolve us from the individual responsibility to reflect on our behaviour as consumers and consider our own environmental impact- and Christmas is no exception.

“Their incompetence does not absolve us from the individual responsibility to reflect on our behaviour as consumers…”

The scale of waste produced during the Christmas period is astronomical, and the associated environmental impact undeniable. The Great Western Packaging Company has published a guide to Christmas waste in the lead up to celebrations this year. In the UK alone, £42 million of unwanted gifts are thrown out, with 100 million bags of waste ending up in landfill. The practice of sending cards throughout the festive period sees 300,000 tonnes of card making and packaging material used, and to put this into perspective one tree only produces the equivalent of 176 Christmas cards.

A whole plate of food is wasted by each UK household on Christmas day, with at least an extra plate wasted in the immediate days that follow. Two million turkeys are thrown out, along with two million kilos of cheese. The UK uses 227,000 miles of wrapping paper each year, much of which is non-recyclable due to plastic content or glitter. 1kg of wrapping paper is responsible for 3kg of CO2 emissions in its production process. That’s a lot of statistics, and it can be hard to put such huge numbers into perspective, but does it not speak true to personal experience? The bin bags full of wrapping paper every Christmas morning, the fireplace crowded by half-read Christmas greetings cards – destined for the bin by mid-January. The frantic food shopping undertaken by mums across the nation, a fridge full of “Christmas food” that you’re not allowed to touch until the 25th, inevitably reaching its use-by date before anyone has a chance to get to it. How many times have you opened a present from some distant relative and wondered: why on earth did they think to buy that? Only for it to sit untouched for a few months in your bedroom before heading for the bin.

“How many times have you opened a present from some distant relative and wondered: why on earth did they think to buy that?

Surely, therefore, it is time to redefine the culture of Christmas. I’m not suggesting that we forgo Christmas indulgence altogether. I enjoy receiving and giving gifts and spending an entire week in a Christmas food and alcohol induced coma as much as anyone else. But the evidence is clear – the nature of consumerism around this period is out of control. We purchase far more than we can consume, and the waste we consequently produce is incredibly harmful to the environment. The climate crisis is so far gone that we cannot afford the gross excesses of Christmas panic buying and consumerism any longer. We must champion the practice of selective, responsible gift buying from sustainable businesses – if you don’t know what to buy someone, a gift voucher is a sensible alternative to an unwanted gift that will end up in landfill. The Christmas food shop must no longer be a frantic, panicked event in which ridiculous quantities of food are thrown into a trolley with little thought. Consider an email, or a phone call as a means by which to reconnect with those you cannot see over the festive period, alternatively cards and wrapping paper made from recycled materials are easily accessed and environmentally responsible options.

“I enjoy receiving and giving gifts and spending an entire week in a Christmas food and alcohol induced coma as much as anyone else. But the evidence is clear…”

Ultimately, we really don’t need big business to define the festive period for us. Whilst they capitalise upon the notions of connectivity, unity and love that we associate with Christmas in an attempt to sell the holiday to us, the spirit of Christmas exists outside of their influence. It is such an enduring and universally understood feeling, an inherently human, not material concept – that I reckon it may just survive without the excesses of consumption we have become accustomed to. What’s more, I reckon it might even be a whole lot more enjoyable.


Share this story

Follow us online

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments