Archbishop: Christmas materialism ‘spoils life’

The true cost of Christmas: an average British family spends around £835 each year.

With six weeks until Christmas, the first salvos in the seasonal advertising war have been fired. But does the pressure to spend money on a perfect Christmas make families ‘miserable’?

Christmas is traditionally supposed to begin with Advent on December 1st. But retailers have not honoured that custom in a long time. Today it is still 42 days to go until December 25th and 19 until Advent; yet the frenzied battle for a share of our festive spending has already begun.

Some of the advertisements, such as John Lewis’s cutesy animal animation, are disguised as heart-warming Christmas tales. Some bank on the appeal of popular celebrities (Ant and Dec appear in a raucous Morrisons advert), while others, like Asda, straightforwardly trumpet their low prices.

The stakes in this seasonal ad war are high, with splurges from customers during the Christmas period bringing in roughly a third of some companies’ annual profits. So it’s not surprising that many are prepared to spend enormous sums of money. This year’s John Lewis campaign will cost a total of £7 million to create and broadcast.

All this with one aim in mind: to make ordinary consumers spend big. But do we really want to? According to Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Church of England, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.

‘It’s a cliché of modern life,’ he admitted, for public figures to bemoan how materialistic Christmas has become. But seasonal consumerism really is ‘ridiculous’. It causes financial woes in families that in turn lead to stress, arguments and misery. In short, he concluded, our annual spending spasm ‘spoils life’.

That modern Christmas is a costly extravagance is undoubtedly true. According to research conducted two years ago, even the most modest festivities will cost a poor family around £182. And a survey carried out last year indicated that the average British family will spend a total of £835. Most of that goes on presents, but Christmas dinner and wine can add hundreds to the bill – and with food costs rising, the fatted turkey is becoming a heavier burden each year.

Bah Humbug

This frenzied consumerism is exactly the opposite of what Christmas should be about, says Archbishop Welby – and many people vigorously agree. There’s nothing wrong with giving gifts to show your love and appreciation, but such things can’t be measured in dollars or pounds. Generosity is about showing affection, not buying it.

Sanctimonious nonsense, respond more cynical types: Christmas is all about excessive consumption and always has been. Of course it may be foolish to break the bank for the sake of the festivities, but there’s nothing wrong with indulging in decadence every now and again. If you like your yuletide modest and meek, go ahead and celebrate it that way – there’s no need to lecture everybody else about the virtues of frugality.

You Decide

  1. Could you have a happy Christmas (or any similar holiday) without presents or luxurious food?
  2. ‘Consumerism never does anything for the consumers.’ Do you agree?


  1. Many Christmas adverts try to capture something about the seasonal spirit. Design a one-minute film to embody the ideas behind Christmas or any other festival.
  2. ‘From a commercial point of view, if Christmas did not exist it would be necessary to invent it.’ Briefly explain the ideas behind this statement and say whether you agree.

Some People Say...

“I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love.’The Beatles”

What do you think?

Q & A

How can I give gifts if I don’t have any money?
If you’re up for a creative challenge you could try making something – cakes, craft objects, paintings, framed photos. Or you could forego the presents and instead make an extra effort to be generous in other ways, like being patient with your family and helping around the house.
What if I don’t celebrate Christmas?
Perhaps your family celebrates a different gift-giving festival – most cultures have one. If so, the same debates apply: is exchanging material goods really an apt way to demonstrate affection? Does money spoil the holiday spirit? And more broadly, is consumerism making us miserable and stressed?

Word Watch

Justin Welby
The leader of the Anglican communion took over the post last year after spending the first part of his career as an executive in the oil industry. As a former businessmen, some believe that his anti-consumerist pronouncements carry more weight.
Financial woes
A survey by YouGov last year suggested that most families can ‘just about’ afford to spend the money they think is necessary for a satisfactory Christmas. But many do feel compelled to borrow money to pay for presents and food.
Food costs
According to the Office for National Statistics, food prices have risen by 12.6% above inflation over the past six years. This is partly due to the financial crisis but there are also long-term global trends: as countries get richer and more populous, they consume more food. If climate change harms agricultural yields, it could make this problem much, much worse.
Bah humbug
The famous phrase with which Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s story A Christmas Carol dismissed Christmas as a trivial and contemptible occasion. He is eventually won over after being visited by three ghosts.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.