Walking around my local Sainsbury's a few weeks ago, I noticed tubs of Quality Street, huge sharing boxes of biscuits, mince pies, and festive nuts on full display, right next to the trick-or-treat sweets. We were barely into October, yet I was already being prompted to start stocking up on Christmas food. I rolled my eyes and internally cursed retailers for shoving Christmas down consumers’ throats before we’d even seen the back of Halloween.
What didn’t once occur to me, however, was that I was coming from a place of financial privilege. Because for many people, buying a mountain of food for the Christmas break in one December shop isn’t an option. If you are in unstable employment or surviving on a low income, the cost of Christmas food can be spread by stocking up on non-perishable items, sometimes months in advance.
Freelance writer and mother-of-four Kathleen Kerridge, knows this all too well. Despite trying to maintain financial stability over the years, there have been times when she has worried about having enough for her children to eat at Christmas.
“I’ve still got residual anxiety from previous years, where there was an absolute fear that I would not be able to do Christmas at all and that my children were literally going to have to go without,” she tells me. “That is every parent’s nightmare.”
Kerridge has also had to rely on the generosity of loved ones to ensure her family has appropriately festive food on Christmas Day.
“There’s having Christmas dinner at other people’s houses, we’ve done that one,” she says. “It saves the embarrassment and I can get away with a bit of gammon or something and boil that up and have it for Boxing Day. So that way, it still seems as though dinner’s been there but in reality, we’ve nipped to blag dinner off my sister and then bought home leftovers to go with my single bit of ham that cost a fiver.”
Sadly, Kerridge is far from alone. The cultural pressure to pull off the perfect Christmas spread can cause immense financial and emotional strain for those struggling to provide for themselves and their families on a low income.
“If you’re struggling to put food on the table for your family, Christmas is the point in the year at which that challenge becomes particularly stark,” says Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation think tank. “It’s impossible to ignore food poverty when every advert in the lead-up to Christmas celebrates expensive meals and the importance of plentiful food.”
Indeed Kerridge and many others in her position find the pressure to provide a bountiful table of food particularly hard during the festive period.
“There’s so many variables that can happen and we’re just talking about food,” Kerridge says. “When you factor in presents and people popping round for a drink at Christmas, it’s excruciating. Beyond anything else, it’s embarrassing. At Christmas, more than any time of year, that shame factor really kicks in for me.”
Annie Oliver of the food insecurity charity Feeding Britain adds: “At Christmas time, the divide between those who can afford to feed their families and those who cannot is seen more starkly. While there is an abundance of Christmas feasts, presents, and festivities happening all around us, there are a substantial number of people that struggle to keep their heat on and their children fed.”
“I’ve still got residual anxiety from previous years, where there was an absolute fear that I would not be able to do Christmas and that my children were literally going to have to go without.”
For Denise Clifton*, the prospect of preparing for Christmas seems such a huge undertaking that it is on her mind towards the end of summer, when her two children return to school.
“Christmas comes into my thoughts in September,” she tells me. “When the kids go back to school, that’s when I start thinking about it.”
Due to limited space in her home, stocking up on festive non-perishables isn’t an option, so Clifton focusses on saving money as best she’s able to.
“I’ve got about three cupboards in my kitchen, so I don’t have storage space for extra things,” she explains. “It’s more a case of putting money away so I can get things closer to the time, or I save up my Nectar points through the year so at Christmas we can get money off the shopping.”
The significance of food over the Christmas period can largely be chalked up to the capitalist narrative that says we must buy and consume in excess in order to truly feel part of the holiday. Can we ever step away from this way of thinking, while still maintaining a sense of community?
Dr Jeremy Brice, fellow in economic sociology at the London School of Economics, isn’t so sure.
“Often what happens with anti-consumption critics is that although they’re bang on in principle, it gets diverted into being a kind of virtue-signalling by people who could afford to do the excessive consumption if they choose,” he says. “So, [opting out of Christmas consumerism] would be a very desirable thing to do in many ways, but because it’s tied up with this dynamic of showing that you’re a good person because you’re not indulging in excessive consumption, it becomes a means of distinction for people who are actually quite financially comfortable and people who genuinely are on low incomes.”
Clifton, however, has no choice but to forgo buying huge tubs of chocolates or family-sized boxes of biscuits for Christmas.
“That’s a luxury,” she says. “If I can afford it, I’ll get them, if not then I’ll go without. For us, it’s about defining what’s essential and what’s not. As long as I’ve got my children sorted, that’s the only thing that matters to me and if it means going without for myself, then that’s what it has to be.”
December is the busiest time of year for Britain’s food banks and Christmas continues to cripple families battling to make ends meet. Christmas displays in October may seem ridiculous, but spare a thought for those who have choice but to start buying and saving for the day months in advance.
*Name has been changed.