Forget Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Spendy Sunday. The proof we needed that Christmas is more about rampant consumerism than the baby Jesus or celebrating with family and friends emerged at the end of last month.
Researchers working for Cambridge University Press published a shining a light on how people across the English-speaking world talk about Christmas. It makes for depressing reading.
Words associated with cold, hard cash – such as “sales”, “spend”, “shopping” and “retailers” – have been catapulted towards the top of a league of Christmassy words, while words such as “carols”, “pantomimes”, “pudding”, “stocking” and “cracker” have been relegated to the minor placings or have disappeared entirely.
With the help of language ambassadors all over the English-speaking world, the academics reviewed more than two billion words in spoken and written English and compared a list of the 35 most common words people use when talking about Christmas in the 1990s and today.
Other words to fall out of favour in the international conversation include “wrapping”, “holly” and “wonderful”.
The study found that excess is increasingly is on our minds, and in more ways than one. Words such as “party”, “goodies”, “bash”, “frolics” and “knees-up” are on the rise. There’s no such thing as a free splurge, however; since the 1990s, our excess has led to “hangover” becoming one of the words most commonly associated with Christmas.
"With wall-to-wall advertising from retailers and increasing mentions in the media, we would expect to see a rise in the frequency of materialistic words in the recent data," said Cambridge University Press language researcher Laura Grimes. "What is surprising is how prominent the influx of these words has been and how they now account for such a significant proportion of the words used in association with Christmas."
Top of the table
The study looks at words used in all the countries where English is spoken, and paints a pretty bleak picture, but things might well be even worse in this part of the world because, when it comes to Christmas spending, there is nowhere in the world that can top Ireland.
This year is likely to be a bumper Christmas, with Retail Ireland expecting core retail sales for December to reach €4.05 billion, an increase of 3.5 per cent on last year’s figure. Personal expenditure on core retail goods in December will be €2,450 per household, about €600 more than in any other month of the year.
Even during the bust, Christmas spending in Ireland held up; estimated Christmas spending has fluctuated between €1,100 and €1,400 per household for more than a decade.
One survey from the Irish League of Credit Unions published in recent weeks suggests that Irish consumers will temper their Christmas spending this year and splash out an average of €563, down from €600 in Christmas 2014. The figure is per person rather than per household, so a household with two adults and two children would be expected to spend just over €1,100 this Christmas.
Eighty per cent of those polled in that survey said we spend too much over the festive season. However, that is based on estimates made in September, a time when Christmas seems far away (unless you’re in the Brown Thomas Christmas shop), and most of us are likely to underestimate our spending.
Another spending survey, published by Eir, suggests that people are planning to spend the same amount – or slightly more – this year compared with last Christmas. Its survey said that, on average, people would spend €544 on Christmas presents this year. Parents would spend an average of €771 on presents alone.
And then there is a third survey, from Aviva, which “reveals” that almost nine in 10 Irish household’s have no plans to cut back on Christmas spending this year, with the majority planning to spend the same amount as, or more than, last Christmas. More than two-thirds of respondents said they had overspent last Christmas, with 50 per cent saying they had exceeded their budget by as much as €200. Only 31 per cent said they had stayed within budget.
Unsurprisingly, the survey found that gifts are the single biggest items of expenditure for families; 54 per cent of households put their spend on presents at more than €500. Rather than looking forward, as the credit union survey does, the Aviva one looks back. In 2014, Irish adults spent an average of €289 on children’s gifts alone, 13 per cent more than they had originally budgeted for.
Apart from gifts, the research also found that Irish households expect to spend €287 on food and drink, €270 on socialising and Christmas events and €183 on home decoration and Christmas outfits. All told, then, the Aviva survey suggests that few Irish households will have any change out of €1,200 once the last of the carols have been sung.
Earlier this year a US statistics company published the average amount budgeted by consumers to spend on gifts for Christmas 2014 in selected European countries. Ireland didn't feature, but the information is revealing nonetheless. In the European Union as a whole, consumers had an average budget of €252 to spend on Christmas gifts last year. Holland was the meanest country in the EU, with its citizens putting aside only €111, while the Portuguese spent €113 (although €113 in Lisbon goes much further than €111 in Amsterdam). Only the UK came close to matching Irish spending patterns: our cousins across the water put their spending at €408.
Every four years, PricewaterhouseCoopers publishes a snapshot of seasonal spending. Last year it found that Irish people spent almost €1,000 on Christmas in 2013, double what people in the US spent.
All of its reports show that Ireland has consistently been the biggest or second- biggest spender in the per-capita league table over the past decade. Its number crunchers could not say if we spent more because things cost more here or because we have a larger number of young people or because we are just that little bit more consumerist than our peers.
Its study put the UK in second place, while within the euro zone, French people spent the second-largest amount after us.
So how do the Dutch get away with spending so little? Well, for a start, Christmas there is a simple two-day event. They get Christmas Day and St Stephen's Day off. That's it. This year St Stephen's Day falls on a Saturday, so they will lose one of their days off as it doesn't carry forward. By December 28th they will all be back at work. They don't have Santa either.