I came across a blog post today that tickled me in so many ways that I decided, rather than comment, to continue the discussion here. MrsW over at Clinically Fed Up elaborated on the middle class malaise of a competition of minimalism when it comes to Christmas spend on the kids, and a competition for the handmade which may or may not link in with this minimalism. Of course, I'm summarising here and I do encourage you to read her post before you continue to read mine.
Well, as you can imagine, as someone who has blogged about the senseless consumerism which seems to gnaw at our very existence (though it wasn't meant as a criticism of purely Christmas spending), as someone who tries to include as many handmade items as I can, and as someone who's been rather struggling financially this year, you can imagine that MrsW's post whirled up a bit of sand in my slightly scattered head. It really got me thinking. Am I contributing to the pressure on parents to be picture perfect and have a handmade home? Is my attempt to cut down on spending decidedly middle class (a question I ask myself almost daily)? Can I afford to spend but decide not to because I'm stingy?
To be clear: I find the £50 limit on spend per child artificial. This year, we spent more. In spite of being broke. Last year and the year before it was less, but that was because Cubling was too young and had more toys than she could play with anyway and I truly didn't see the point. The £20 limit is just daft. I spend more than that on other people's kids. The inverse competition isn't something that I've come across, in fact, I've never discussed with even my best friends how much they spend on their child. However, I can relate to so many examples linked to the minimalism of spending.
This year in particular, I've been found to complain about the abundance of presents. Not just for the kids, but for us big kids too. We (Mr and Mrs Cartside) are in our late 30s, yet we are given presents by relatives and friends, who now also give an additional present to our daughter. I know that for some, this is a significant expense, and I'm not comfortable with this. On the other hand, being given presents undoubtably creates a pressure to give presents in return and it does get rather difficult finding a present for people who actually have all they need (or don't disclose what they do need and have not). It's no secret that I hate waste, and the thought of any present, regardless of value, not being used, makes me question what all this present giving is about.
I only need to take my father as a glowing example. Every single present I've given him since time immemorial has been unused. He's my dad and I can't seem to be able to come up with a single thing that he may appreciate. I've tried. Rarely, I've been successful. His own approach is that of monetary gifts, one that I don't particularly like but at least he's (brutally) honest and tells me he can't be bothered imagining what people may want and he really doesn't want any more tat even from other people.
On the other hand, there's the financial pressure that I am under at the moment. It's temporary, so it doesn't worry me the way it worries others. But I know plenty of people who've recently lost their jobs and who still may give presents. It isn't right. I don't want them to give presents, I do appreciate the gesture very much, but really, it's not necessary. We have all we've got and a visit, a phone call, some time together is the best gift there can be. There is also the sad fact that those who struggle the most will still spend to make Christmas special, and end up in debt. Serious debt I may add.
Add to that my very real concern about the temptation of quick buys in cheap shops, the consumer society we live in which produces stuff that is not needed on the expense of natural resources that are limited, I have come to the conclusion that I can only try and address this in some way. So, yes, my way has been to try and increase the proportion of handmade items. Handmade in the broadest sense. Of course MrsW is very right in saying that a) handmade is actually not necessarily cheaper, especially if you look at my favourite sport, knitting; that b) it takes a lot of time and it's not realistic to make a handmade only Christmas; and that c) most of us aren't talented enough to make it anything that someone may appreciate. I struggle with c), really, I love making things, but the only thing I'm reasonably good at is knitting. Which takes ages. I could never ever knit enough to make even the smallest of presents for those closest to me.
As to b) the time involved in making things - that is a very important point. As much as I do like to increase the proportion of handmade items, it doesn't work because I work. Simple as that. I work 4 days a week, sometimes evenings and weekends, I'm the cook in our family, I keep the house tidy (barely let me tell you) and I also help out at another household. There is only so much time in the day and more often than not, my energy just about suffices for a quickly scribbled blog post.
So why do I try? Well, it is about trying to somehow break the endless consumerism I'm surrounded by. If I knit a baby hat, I know that I gave it 2 full evenings of mine. But evenings where I was able to relax. It does make me appreciate the real value of things. Because, even though you can buy a knitted hat/cardigan etc in the shop for a fraction of the cost of yarn, nevermind the time, I also know that the shop hat is cheap because of exploitation, cheap labour, pollution, consumption of natural resources (yes it takes oil to make a baby hat). And I try to opt, where I can, not to buy, not to consume, not to create more stuff. And yes, I'm acutely aware that this attitude is decidedly middle class which makes me very uneasy a lot of the time.
I also want to make sure as of the year to come that anyone who wants to give us a present knows that we are happy if they chose not to. That we appreciate a very small token and are open to agree not to give presents. And as to the kids, well, it's a hard one. I love giving to kids, and so do others. But truth be told, my daughter plays little at home - she's either at the childminder or at her cousin's house, or we are out and about. She already has more toys than time to play with them, and when she plays she actually prefers to help me cook, to play with empty kitchen rolls and other random items. She is great at imagination - e. g. she'll play hairdresser without any toys, she just imagines soap, hair dryer and scissors. I really feel, as much as I hate to say it, that the £30 (I'm guessing) play house that she played with a few times and doesn't now touch, was money wasted.
Therefore, for birthdays and Christmasses to come, I hope our friends and relatives do not feel obliged to buy the latest pink toy for our daughter, or anything at all for us, the parents. And, radical as it may be, second hand is just fine when it comes to presents. The bottom line is that it's hard to tell what will be played with. I'm very happy to spend a lot of money on one item if this is something that will be cherished (which is why we bought a large item for this Christmas) but would rather do without the stuff that won't get played with. And for us - well, do we really need anything? Have we not got more than enough? This year, I've made some handmade presents, some knits, lots of biscuits. They will come in lieu of gifts to relatives who we feel have been burdened with our badly selected gifts in the past.
Surely, food is always appreciated. And if it's homemade, it doesn't have the "I didn't know what to get you so I bought you a box of biscuits" feel to it. I do pledge to do more of this next year. Not as a reverse competition (we will always be happy to spend a lot if it's an item that is appreciated and will be used lots), but as a way of getting the balance right. And not making people thank us for another useless item that we randomly selected for them.