This weekend, publicans braced themselves for the beginning of what is idiosyncratically known in Ireland as “the Christmas’’.
“The Christmas’’ is not just a celebratory event which falls on one day, as it is in most of the rest of the world. That would be far too straightforward.
That one day jamboree in other countries is plain old “Christmas’’. Our Irish version – “the Christmas’’ – is a month-long endurance test: a customised binge of shopping, gargling and scoffing. A publican friend described the Christmas aptly as “bedlam, pure and simple’’.
When it is all over, in the first few days of January, the most common greeting that we Irish people extend to each other is: “How did you get over the Christmas’’ – as if you were discussing root canal surgery or some sort of diabolical hurricane which swept in off the Atlantic to engulf this poor nation. The term “get over’’ says it all.
The Christmas is a test of fortitude, financially, emotionally and physically. It’s a season rather than a festival and you have to be in tip-top form to get over it.
Retailers need a good Christmas to make sure the year ends on the right note; likewise, restaurateurs and publicans. Across the spectrum, those with something to sell get busy selling.
There are always big movie releases, plus theatrical spectacles that would not risk opening at any other time of the year. New products like the Xbox One, PS4, iPhone 5s and 5c are introduced to huge fanfare. In the US, retail analysts pore over the sales of the first weekend after Thanksgiving to gauge the strength of the US recovery and consumer sentiment.
In the UK, high street multiples invest millions in marketing. For example, the usually anti-consumerist and wonderful Lily Allen has covered a Keane track for John Lewis, which is designed to sell as much stuff as possible by pulling shamelessly on our heartstrings. (And, admittedly, doing it brilliantly; it had our family on the verge of tears!)
But do we actually spend much more at Christmas? And, if so, what do we spend it on?
In recent weeks, there have been a few articles suggesting that the Irish spend more at Christmas than the rest of Europe. And a few years ago, when I wrote a piece here about returning from a business trip in New York in 2006 – at the height of the spending madness – that certainly seemed to be the case. But what about now? The best way to assess whether we are indeed spending much more in the run-up to The Christmas is to see how much we spend in December and November, compared to the average retail spending during the rest of the year.
There was an article in Quartz magazine last week which looked at whether Americans outspent the rest of the world at this time of year. I extended the analysis to Ireland to see where we lie vis-a-vis the rest of the developed world.
Have a look at the first table below. It measures average spending over 12 months for three years: 2010, 2011 and 2012. Look at November. It shows that, in the three countries of peripheral Europe suffering from the highest rates of unemployment and where the economy has contracted the most – Ireland, Greece and Spain – consumers spent less in November than the average. This could be because, being cash-strapped, we stop spending in November to have something left for December.
It also reflects a lack of credit because we live in the countries where the banking system is bust. In the rest of the world, there is a small uptick in November. In the UK, Germany, Australia and Canada, spending tends to ramp up in November.
Then look at December. In Ireland, we spend 19 per cent more then than we do on average in the previous 11 months. It is actually a rather modest retail binge compared with that of our neighbours across the water. And we see that the three countries of the periphery are not the big spenders at Christmas.
Compare the Irish spending at Christmas to that of the UK, Australia or France or Italy. We are positively frugal. The Aussies get the prize for the best Christmas shoppers in the world, spending on average 35 per cent more in December than during the rest of the year.
But that’s not the end of the story.
I wanted to get to the bottom of the “Did you get over The Christmas?’’ question. If we are thriftier in December than the average of developed world countries, maybe the notion that the Irish “go mad’’ at Christmas is just another myth.
If we drill a bit deeper into the spending to see how much we spend on drink, food and tobacco, this tells a different story – one that would make your arteries harden. This is the partying index.
Oh yes, there it is. Examine the numbers in table 2. The partying index tells us that the Americans spend only 4 per cent more on eating, drinking and smoking in December than in an average month, as do the French, Canadians and Spanish. The Germans push it a bit more and, of course, the Brits and the Aussies are giving it socks in December, spending more than 11 per cent and 14 per cent more respectively on gorging in December than usual.
But look at us. Look again, and take it in.
On the partying index, we Irish push a boat or two dozen out. We spend 30 per cent more in December on booze and food than at any other time of the year. This is mad.
When I saw the figures, taken from the CSO, I couldn’t quite believe it, but it’s true. Call it what you will, the partying index, the hangover index, the craic index, but there it is. We spend more than twice as much in December than the supposedly hard-drinking Aussies, and almost eight times the amount the Yanks spend on having the craic!
Is it any surprise, with that type of dietary debauchery, that we ask ourselves in January: “How did you get over the Christmas?”