By CHARLOTTE METCALF
Last updated at 3:34 AM on 4th December 2010
Less than five years ago, Christmas for me meant leisurely afternoons in Harrods buying a pretty embroidered cushion, some bath oil and a toy or two here, some smoked salmon and a box of chocolates there.
Shopping in a global superstore among the well-heeled is a relaxed pleasure — or should I say, it was.
For today it is merely a gold-tinted memory, as remote and exotic as going to Timbuktu.
This year, the arrival of the festive period has sent shivers down my spine. And not because of the cold.
Like many thousands of families across Britain, I have experienced a dramatic downturn in my fortunes in the past year or two.
To put it simply: I may be middle class, but I’m poverty-stricken.
Five years ago, I earned £1,200 a week from my work as a TV and film producer and would have thought nothing of spending £45 on a pot of gold-lidded lusciously scented body cream as a Christmas present for a distant cousin.
These days, I am lucky if I earn £500 a week as a writer.
We know that, in the United States, middle-class encompasses a huge economic range from Walmart to Macy's and a little beyond. And it's not all about economics, of course. Here, it's largely a state of mind. But while "well-heeled" may also be relative, it's not really what we think of when we think of middle-class, is it?
I won't compare her income ranges to ours; that's also extremely relative, even more so here than there. My own family's household income would be considered fairly high in many parts of our country, yet in New Jersey, it's fairly ordinary. But we can look at prices contextually. That £45 pot of body cream? 70 dollars. For someone she barely knows. So you see the kind of thing she means here.
Personally, if it were just me and my partner, we’d tighten our belts and be done with it.
But I have a six-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old step-daughter — not to mention six godchildren and about a dozen other children, ranging from teenagers to toddlers — who I need to buy presents for. (I think she means for whom she must buy gifts. Also, twelve.)
Just as I used to do as a little girl, my daughter has written a wish list to Santa and is confidently expecting him to wiggle down the chimney with a sack bulging with goodies ranging from a violin to Silly Bandz, the ubiquitous rubber bracelets all the rage among young girls.
She has been aglow with anticipation and her face lights up every time she hears the word ‘present’.
Incapable of treading on her dreams, I decided I might be able to afford stockings if I filled them with lots of little, cheap things that would give the illusion of bulk and plenty.
So, far from perusing the aisles of Harrods, I found myself checking out the bargains at Poundland.
I discovered excellent deals like giant Toblerones for under £1 — but still, it was not the place to fill an entire stocking. Yet even the most reasonable of places, like Asda, no longer seem that cheap.
I have made it a golden rule not to spend more than £5 on a stocking present, and am horrified by how many items like window stickers, sets of crayons, colouring books, little plastic puppies and so on cost well over that. Even Silly Bandz just squeak in at £4.99, depending on where you buy them.
Yes, she's fallen so far, she's gone from the equivalent of Sak's Fifth Avenue to the Dollar General Store or Five Below. That's her version of "middle class poverty." Hee. The truth is, she just never bothered to notice how much anything cost before, or what it might actually be worth. Reality is a cruel, mad bitch in that scenario.
By the way, Asda is sort of Walmart; the shinier version.
I tried the internet, but quickly filled a virtual basket that came to over £320 so, feeling queasy, I abandoned the website.
Oh, boo hoo.
And when I went back to the shops, all I could think was: ‘I can’t afford this. Why am I here?’
And it’s not just presents I can’t afford. There are the time-honoured rituals, like the annual visit to the local pantomime or to a London show, that are now out of the question. Tickets for the musical Wicked were £90 when I last looked.
Then there are the decorations that suddenly seem oh-so-expensive.
My mother always had a glossy, fat-berried holly wreath on our front door, but today something similar can cost well over £40, even if you try to track one down cheaply in a local market.
What my mother did save on was tree decorations — we had a few red and green baubles and some lengths of lank tinsel that were wrapped in tissue and carefully put away each year.
I still own a few surviving baubles and some tiny birds made out of pipe-cleaner that will make it on to our tree this year.
She has to reuse Christmas decorations!! Really crappy ones, because there is no middle ground between disposable excess and pipe cleaners. I feel like crying about that 70 dollar wreath, myself, but I'll hold it in.
Long gone are the days when you just bought a supermarket turkey and shoved it in the oven.
Now, we are made to feel like lousy cooks if we haven’t soaked it in a spicy brine full of expensive Maldon sea salt, cinnamon sticks and maple syrup for days beforehand.
My mother was lucky because my grandmother provided us with tin upon tin of home-made mince pies and a Christmas cake. I would love to bake, but I don’t have time.
Even wrapping paper has become a source of irritation.
My mother spent hours wrapping presents, turning even a mundane gift into an enticing, beribboned box worthy of one of the Three Kings.
Following in her footsteps, I used to buy ribbons from VV Rouleaux — now their price of £50 for velvet and silk ribbons seems truly shocking. Obscene, even. So I was thrilled to spot a six-pack of gold twine at Tesco for £2, and I’m hoping that will do the trick.
Now you're starting to think this is a joke, right? She's gone from 80 dollar ribbon to 2 dollar twine. Is it inconceivable she has enough time to brine a turkey but not bake a g-d pan of cookies? Of course not. She's kind of one of these "can't see the forest for the trees" types, I'm thinking.
The whole thing has become one big headache.
This June, I finally paid off the last of my credit card bills. I have not used one since. I know, in reality, as Christmas Day creeps up on me, I am bound to dust off one, persuading myself that my family’s and friends’ presents are paramount.
I wish I were brave enough to do things differently. But the truth is I’m just too squeamish about disappointing my children in the short term — even though in the long term I would probably be doing them an enormous favour.
So with Advent upon us, I can only look to the next few weeks with a creeping sense of dread.
Cry ‘Bah Humbug’ if you must. Call me spoilt if you wish.
But the fact is, I wish I could cancel Christmas.
Be brave, Charlotte. Be brave. Take some Paracetamol (acetaminophen) and charge forth.