The tinkling sleigh bells are drowned out by screaming sirens. It’s the last Friday before Christmas – or, as it has recently come to be known – black-eye Friday. All across Britain, office parties spew inebriated revellers onto fairy-lit high-streets. Unfortunately, these alcohol-fuelled seasonal excesses, all too frequently, end in tears. This is the busiest night of the year for the UK’s ambulance crews, and Friday, December 19 – black-eye Friday, 2014 – was the busiest night since records began.
As an Abu Dhabi-based British expatriate, I become something of a cultural anthropologist on my visits back to the UK.
On my most recent visit, I witnessed the traditional festival variously known as: Christmas, Christmas or, as some now refer to it, Excess-mas. There are many positive platitudes parroted about the festive season: “It’s a time for family and friends” or “It’s a time for peace and goodwill to all mankind." Only, increasingly, it isn’t.
Once upon a time the magnificent, skyline-punctuating churches and cathedrals were the architectural heart of the festival, but they have now largely ceded ground to shopping malls.
During the festive season, these centres of commerce stay open later and longer, facilitating a vigil of consumption unparalleled in the history of humanity.
Special offers abound, assuaging post-purchase guilt and providing a kind of quantitative easing for the soul. Everywhere gifts are sought and bought with the indomitable determination of the damned. Economic downturn, deficit, recession, what recession?
The supermarkets teem with frenzied shoppers, panic-buying food items like they’ve just received a hurricane warning – everyone is advised to stock-up on essential and non-essential items.
It’s true, some shops did close on Christmas day, but even those reopened within 24 short hours, trumpeting further reductions and more unmissable sales.
It’s easy to go on and on – like a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge – bellyaching about the over-commercialisation of a holy day.
It’s equally easy to have a pop at vapid, vacuous, consumerism. But in truth, there is nothing overly problematic with either of these. Commercially hijacking a holiday or shopping until you drop are, for sure, the lesser of three evils. The real problem, the real evil, is debt.
We bumped and bullied our way through Black Friday in the run up to Christmas. Then, thankfully, most of us survived black-eye Friday relatively unscathed. But now, looming on the horizon is Blue Monday, the day of doom, gloom and debt.
Slightly apocryphal, Blue Monday was concocted by a psychologist, Cliff Arnall, as part of a marketing ploy aimed at selling winter-sun holidays. Predicted to occur towards the end of January (the Monday of the last full week in January), Blue Monday is touted as the unhappiest day of the year – a great time to escape the UK for warmer climates perhaps?
Factored into the Blue Monday prediction/algorithm is the anticipated arrival of credit card bills and other debts associated with Christmas excess.
Blue Monday calculations aside (this year it’s January 19), debt is always a recipe for dysphoria, as well as being a huge risk factor for suicide. The festive season, it seems, has become associated with debt, despair and hopelessness.
So how can we make Christmas happy again, or at least prevent it from becoming massively depressogenic? Less excess would be a great start.
Rather than indulging too much – gym membership sales spike in January too – a new festive tradition we might attempt to cultivate is a conscious effort to eat and drink in moderation, while simultaneously feeding the needy. Perhaps we could also begin wishing each other a “debt-free Christmas” while greatly lowering our gift-getting expectations. I know one family that made a pact to only gift each other something thoughtful, with a price tag of under £1 (Dh6).
The UK Christmas experience has come to be characterised by record levels of accident and emergency admissions and record levels of consumer debt. I fear, if the celebrations continue on their current trajectory, Christmas will eat itself.
Justin Thomas is an associate professor of Psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States
On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas