Consuming Christmas

Photo: Ornament Shop @ Kris Kindl Markt (#0055) (Dec 2, 2011) by regan76. CC-BY-2.0 license via Flickr.
Photo: Ornament Shop @ Kris Kindl Markt (#0055) (Dec 2, 2011) by regan76. CC-BY-2.0 license via Flickr.

With just 1 more sleep and more importantly only 1 shopping day (!!!) left (keep track of your sleeps and shopping days), “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Toys in every store…”

And indeed there are, even here in Kampala, although not remotely comparable to the entire aisles and shops that are dedicated to the festive season in Ireland. In one of Kampala’s biggest stores you’ll find one remote corner at the entrance of the store selling its overpriced Christmas decorations while blasting out muffled Christmas sounds from CDs on daily ‘repeat.’ since November.

I guess in the ‘developed’ world sense of Christmas consumerism, Uganda may be described as minimalist. Decorations are scarce. Christmas trees are scarcer (is that even a word?) and of course, “there won’t be snow in Africa” as Bob and Bono remind us. It’s probably going to be around 30°C, even with El Niño.

It may come as a surprise however, that Ugandans do infact celebrate Christmas. It’s the biggest holiday of the year. Schools are out from the end of November and don’t return until early February. Kampala almost empties out as its residents return to their respective rural areas throughout the country.

Traditionally, the essence behind Christmas lies in its opportunities for giving as wonderfully explained in the 172 year old story of Scrooge in the Charles Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol. In Uganda, Christmas is about going home to family, taking and sharing food, buying cloth for a new Christmas dress and above all, praying together.

While for those of us in ‘developed’ countries it’s also about family and sharing food – and drink, it is increasingly preoccupied with consumerism and (over) consumption.

The countdown to Black Friday deals that dominated my inbox warning me of the time limit for that product I really need – “there are only four left and 300 people are looking at it”; ensuring that the latest Playstation sits in front of your TV on Christmas morning; upgrading your ipad or android from last years’ model; clambering over those in front of you at the till in CEX for the last available copy of the latest Playstation game; scrambling for the cheap deals in Boots on Christmas eve; stockpiling food on shelves that may never be eaten and so on.

And don’t forget the annual (although increasingly rivalled by Halloween) competition for the house with the greatest number of Christmas lights and Christmas fixtures in the garden and around the house has intensified. ESB must love Christmas.

Unlike Chris Rea, I won’t be “Going home for Christmas” this year, so my scramble will be beating every ex-pat staying here for the festive season to the Turkey farm. It’s not quite the same in the heat, away from family, but there is still that Christmas spirit and excitement.

Christmas is my favourite time of year. I love the decorations and the lights, the open fire, the pickles you eat only once a year, the Christmas log, ‘Midnight Mass,’ – even the cold. Ah yes, don’t forget the Christmas decorations. The Euro stores are bulging with cheap deco’s – Santa boots/suits, signs, hangings, tinsel in every colour, splattering of red, green, gold, Christmas tree decorations, lights….

I have to confess that I am a recovering Christmas over-consumer. I know that I haven’t quite recovered when I go to other people’s houses and notice that they have way more decorations, lights, trees and even Christmas chocolate and regretting I didn’t buy more in the sales last year.

How can I possibly invite anyone around to the house with my metal Baobab tree when everyone else has a six-foot artificial green one – even here in the tropics?

Thankfully, I came across an article in The Guardian recently that grounded me once again.

Santa has (temporarily?) relocated part of his enterprise. In our ‘global village’ even Santa has to be economically competitive. The workshop is no longer in the North Pole – it’s in China.

A photo posted by MadeFAIR ???? (@madefair_co) on

Yep, the cheap ‘n cheerful Christmas deco’s and paraphernalia that overwhelm us in Bargaintown and the majority of our stores are produced inside “China’s Christmas village” in Yiwu, some 300km south of Shanghai. There are reportedly 600 factories that produce 60 percent of all the decorations sold throughout the globe (perhaps the other 40 percent are still made in the North Pole?).

The ‘elves’ in Yiwu are migrant workers earning between €280 to €420 a month, for 12 hour shifts – and have no idea why:

“Maybe it’s like [Chinese] New Year for foreigners,” says 19-year-old Wei, a worker who came to Yiwu from rural Guizhou province this year, speaking to Chinese news agency Sina. Together with his father, he works long days in the red-splattered lair, taking polystyrene snowflakes, dipping them in a bath of glue, then putting them in a powder-coating machine until they turn red – and making 5,000 of the things every day.

It’s tiring work and I’d say boring, and not entirely healthy inhaling the dust and paint fumes all day every day. And all to enable those like me, the Christmas consumption fanatics, to add that essential festive ornament to the collection we have accumulated over the years. How ever will I survive my Euro store detox this year?

Yiwa’s ‘China Commodity City’ described by the Guardian article as a “pound shop paradise” is in competition with internet giant Alibaba who have 1.4 million different Christmas decorations compared to Yiwa’s 400,000 products AND Alibaba will have the stuff delivered direct to your door (I wonder would they deliver to Kampala…).

While Yiwa’s lower end market products thrived during our ‘recession’ feeding our need for cheap products, this year things aren’t going as well – does that mean we are out of recession and looking for ‘quality’? It seems so.

According to an RTE article, Retail Ireland is forecasting Christmas retail sales this year of €4.05 billion, which is up 3.5 percent from last year! (not as good as 2007 levels though – c’mon lads, get spending!).

Luckily, for Yiwa, the Chinese have embraced the capitalism of the Christmas brand, and the domestic market is growing. And I’m relieved to read that I’m not the only addict of Christmas tack in the world – Cheng Yaping, the co-founder of the Boyang Craft Factory, understands

“Sitting here every day, being able to look at all these beautiful decorations, is really great for your mood.”

And indeed it is for those of us admiring the decorations and the flashing, singing lights as we sip our Mulled Wine and eat Mince Pies. But I reckon that’s not wonderful news for Wei and his dad and the thousands of others working long hours for low pay in order to satisfy our festive joy, enhanced (or perhaps as a result of?) through pre (and post) Christmas retail pleasures.