Christmas is supposed to be about non material things like peace, joy and love. So why does it end up costing so much?

A few years ago we had to rethink all our Christmas rituals. My husband, who always put up the decorations and cooked the Christmas dinner, had died. It took us about two years before we wanted to celebrate Christmas again, and when we did we couldn’t bear to enact the same rituals without him. We had to think up new ones and new ways to get dinner on the table.

It wasn’t so easy. It was hot and crowded in the kitchen, with too many people getting in each other’s way. We spent too much money on gifts nobody needed. As always, the paper hats felt curiously stifling, like cranial straight jackets. We argued over the crackers, and the cheap toys that ended up forgotten in the debris of corks and wrapping paper.

And worst of all was the expense. I spent far too much money trying to make everyone happy, so the festive season was invariably followed by guilt and worry as I started the new year with a fat credit card balance it would take months to pay off. And I still had to face school uniforms, books and stationery bills.

The next year we tried Secret Santa. One R300 gift for the person whose name we had drawn, and a R30 present each for everyone else. Total cost for gifts R540.

That didn’t work either. The R300 gift was fine, but the R30 presents were mostly shiny junk that nobody wanted on Boxing Day. We’d collectively wasted over two thousand rand. So we decided in future to buy Christmas gifts only for our significant others, and to be more generous at birthdays.

And the food. Who paid for it, who cooked it, and worst, who cleaned up afterwards, in the December heat?

For us, cleaning is invariably an issue after a big family meal. There’s the OCD cleaner, who specialises in sighs and silent accusations, and wants everything sparkling even if it takes till Boxing Day to finish, the sloppy half drunk one who forgets what they’re doing and breaks the glasses while talking too much and too loudly, the lazy one who tries to sneak off for a nap straight after lunch, the bumbling and fumbling ones who are no use at all, and the bossy one who irritates everyone. Then there’s trying to get all the leftovers into the fridge when SOMEONE hasn’t returned the tupperwares they borrowed. And this is meant to be the season of good will?

I’ve finally worked out a system that makes the festive season bearable, and turns January from a mean bitch into just another month.

Advent is the traditional fasting time for Christians in the four weeks before Christmas, but retailers don’t care about that. They want us to feast feast feast from the end of October.

Instead we move our fast to the four weeks after New Year, a psychologically horrible time to be cash strapped and penitent.

I’m self employed, and December is a terrible month for me income wise. I avoid the shops completely during December. I get all my Xmas shopping finished by the end of October by shopping at online sales.

In November I start selling stuff. I look for the things I’ve bought that I never use – the dehydrator, the clothes that I’ve never worn. I look through the shed for things to sell on Gumtree – the old window and door taken out of the house when I renovated, and the things I’ve bought at charity shops or fetes and never used. This year I’ll sell the elliptical trainer that hurts my knees.

This money is set aside for the festive season. We cut back expenses in December. We eat the food that’s been in the store cupboard all year, and empty the freezer. We don’t eat out or get takeout. We use our loyalty points and I never, ever go to the shops. I buy everything online, because the R50 delivery fee is far less than the money I know I’ll waste if I see the displays in the shops.

Last year we ordered Christmas Dinner from a caterer. We fetched it on Christmas Eve in a huge box tied with a bow. Inside were three delicious courses in foil containers that only had to be warmed in the oven. It cost R300 a head, and the rule for the family was that everyone who earned a salary had to pay for their own meal. I paid for those family members without incomes, and they contributed the Quality Street.

It worked so well we’re doing it again this year. I wasn’t left with a huge hole in my bank account and nobody argued over the cooking or who was micromanaging the salad. When dinner was over we threw the foil containers in the bin, loaded the dishwasher and all went off for a snooze.

Without all the stresses of overspending, cleaning and cooking, we’re able to focus on the things that matter, like peace, joy and love, and we all start January debt free.


Photo by: Takashi Hososhima, Danbo Santa Claus via Flickr. CC by 2.0