Christmas: a season of giving?

By Catherine Perkins, first year Classics with Archaeology and Theology

Unless you are one of the majorly stressed students practically eating, studying and sleeping 24 hours a day in the Bill Bryson library to finish a summative essay due imminently, it is hard not to notice that it is nearly Christmas. In Durham, the Christmas lights are on, the childish part of every student missing year 2 drama is getting secretly excited that there is going to be a live nativity in Market Square with real camels, and the poor catering staff must be getting bored of the freshers’ nihilistic moans of “I’ve been here so long, I am just ready to go home” over breakfast.

The comfort and warmth of family and being home

It’s almost Christmas. And that makes us think of light, and the story of Christ, and the comfort and warmth of family and being home. But in today’s world, we cannot help but also associate Christmas with the buying and exchanging gifts, to the extent that, in America, the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas has become labelled as “the season of giving.” Last Tuesday was even labelled “Giving Tuesday.” Outwardly, this may seem commendable, although whether or not there really is a wide-scale commitment to charity and self-giving during this period is perhaps another question. Unfortunately, it is the fact that giving necessitates buying, that has seemingly become prominent; in consumer markets, buying has become the equivalent of giving.

With the Americanisation of the British consumer market over the decades, we cannot blindly distance ourselves from this phenomenon. We too are contributing to a consumer-Christmas state: the hypnosis of “Black Friday,” extending now to “Cyber Monday,” sees thousands rushing to the shops to indulge in price slashes and sales. We may all empathise with feeling a little more guilt-free in spending hard-earned wages on the basis that buying at lower prices seems a little less like buying at all.

We are gripped by a sense of duty to give, and thus to buy

It may seem that there is little we can do to change this. Businesses are well aware of the contemporary trend of increased disposable expenditure at this time of year. Television adverts play with emotion and fix memory, exploiting the consumer into spending more. Who doesn’t want to go out and buy every little boy a piano, in the hope that it may inspire them to discover their inner music, and become the next Elton John? It works; we are gripped by a sense of duty to give, and thus to buy, often automatically turning straight to such large businesses.

Seeing the number of Amazon parcels that arrived one day at St John’s, a passer-by light-heartedly remarked how we must keep them in business. Of course, it is not true, but in our own microcosmic community, we are exposing a worldwide consumer shift: the Office for National Statistics’ survey of 2018 showed that online-only sales were increasing by a rapid rate of 15.6% annually, compared to just 2.3% in stores. Whilst, in 2008, online spending made up less than 5% of all retail income, in 2017, this exceeded 20%, with particular areas of online growth were in food retail and household goods. We are observing such a growth in online retail that a future can be envisaged where the English high street is a very empty place indeed.

Businesses are faced with a bleak future

It is unsurprising that there are a record number of store closures every year, particularly in terms of independent businesses, who struggle as product retail is taken on by large online companies who stock uniform products on a large scale. As people choose to shop online, income decreases, tenancy rent becomes unaffordable, and businesses are faced with a bleak future. Whilst they too have the choice to move trade online, this brings a new wave of challenges in terms of identity: how can small independent businesses assert an online presence in competition with rapidly growing, wealthy, and established online sites? It’s not impossible, but it is certainly a challenge.

So, what can we do? Well, we are lucky in Durham to have many unique and quirky independent businesses that are still present in the community; and, in fact, how we support these, and the local economy, as a college, was a key focus of discussions at College Council last Friday. We are lucky that each weekend there is a local market in Market Square, and local businesses housed in Market Hall, as well as around town, are open throughout the week. The Cathedral Christmas markets over the past weekend showcased an amazing range of talent, with hand-crafted decorations, paintings, clothing, local produce, jams, alcohols and more. Each product had an individual story and store owners were proud to chat about their skills, and to sell as local businesses to local people. There is no reason why we cannot invest more in the talent and produce that is right here in front of us, we have just become blind to it.

It is easy for us to sit in our rooms, log on to Amazon with the Amazon Prime membership we were coercively offered with student bank accounts, and reap the effects of online buying on Black Friday. But there are a wealth of opportunities waiting just outside our doorstep – people with stories to tell, skills to share, and local craftsmanship of which they are proud. Even if giving has to necessitate buying, we can choose to make this as close to a “season of giving” as we can. We can give back to the local communities we live in, and invest in the people, as well as the produce, of our local economy.

Seek out local businesses this Christmas

My challenge to you is to seek out local businesses this Christmas, and to share in the amazing projects and stories that they have going on, before it’s too late. We are one community; let us share in the profit that we can bring to one another.

Photography by Clarissa Wemple

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