But I never, ever compromise on buying a real Christmas tree. “Of course you bloody don’t!” my friend declares over the lunch he is paying for. I had declined his lunch invite earlier that day, as I always do when someone invites me to something spontaneous. When your budget is as tight as mine, there is no room for spontaneity. And so he insisted on paying.
“In case you wanted to come to the Christmas dinner but are worried about money, I checked and you can order off the bar snacks menu on the day instead of having the set menu,” another friend messages me.
I’ve been the poor one, not just for Christmas but all year round, for as long as most of my friends have known me. If they want to see me outside of my shoebox flat it means either they are buying me lunch or a drink, or they have scheduled it so far in advance that I have budgeted for it. But at Christmas – no matter how far in advance my friends invite me – I simply cannot afford to go out on top of buying gifts for the five non-negotiable people I have got my list down to.
Even when people know your budget is tight, few understand what it is like to live in London on a £15 to £30 a week budget. So, as sympathetic as they might be, and as indulgent, generous and helpful as they are, I can’t help but feel guilty as I say no to one more Christmas invite. It feels rude. Under normal, non-COVID circumstances I would always reply to my friend that I will definitely come to the Christmas dinner in that case, knowing full well it will mean drinking tap water and not ordering any food. Everyone will encourage me to eat and have wine and not to worry and I will love them for it but I won’t accept. I won’t be that girl. Not in December. December is the one month where I want to repay the generosity shown to me all year by those I love, and the support of my friends, who encourage me and believe in me even when I don’t believe in myself. Except that I never can; the best I can hope to do is show up to the events they organise.
I know what some of you might be thinking: You can’t be that poor if you buy a real tree. But I can. I really can. The money I will spend on my tree could cover the presents for my niece and nephew, or it could cover the set Christmas dinner with friends, or it could cover a bottle of Prosecco in the pub with friends, or it could be the difference between eating homemade soup from the scraps of leftover vegetables in the fridge all week and three square meals a day – but it can’t cover them all.
Not buying the tree might solve one problem and give me a moment’s relief but buying the tree gives me so much more. It makes me feel part of Christmas even when I have to turn down invites. It tells me that I am a grown-up when, most days, I still feel like a 15-year-old girl waiting for someone to pick her up from the school called life where I seem to have been left; the gap below the branches where the presents should be reminds me how lucky I am to have so many loved ones to want to buy gifts for, even if I can't actually buy them.
When I had flatmates the cost was shared, as was the struggle to get the blasted thing home, stand it up straight, and thread it evenly with lights. The decorations that covered the tree had been left behind by flatmates past and the tree-buying ritual was a nice excuse to get our busy lives in line for one night a year.
When I moved into my studio flat I didn’t think I would be able to afford a tree and imagined that if I did get one, it would probably be really small – pot plant-sized. But when Christmas arrived that first year, I found myself buying a tree I was fairly sure was too big for my flat. I bought cheap tree lights and then raided my drawers for old bits of ribbon, which I cut up and tied to the branches in decoration. Over the years I’ve bought a few baubles but the ribbons go on the tree every year; a reminder that poverty can lead to some of my better ideas. The ribbons cost £2 and they look brilliant.
Having a budget forces you to be imaginative, from creating a recipe using dry lentils and half a questionable onion because that’s all the food you have left, to making homemade presents in the form of truffles out of some old chocolate and a slab of butter, to crafting your own Christmas decorations or hanging an old drawer on the wall as a makeshift shelf.
But it also makes you imaginative in other ways. I find extra work in December to cover the present money; there are always retail companies or bars looking for event staff. I always, always find the money for presents in the end, somehow.
I will never be the sort of person who can buy presents in the January sale; I can never even buy them over the Black Friday weekend. I will be working extra shifts, new events, temp jobs, buying one present with each extra bit of money that comes in, right up until the last possible minute. And I will be sitting at home on my days off from second jobs, in the cosiest of flats with the smell of my real tree and the warmth of Christmas lights reminding me why it is all worth it.
As I hand over my card and pay the £30 for the tree, I feel a frisson of excitement about getting out my old bits of ribbon and bringing Christmas home. And, hey, this year I found potted trees near my flat with free delivery, so I won’t have to struggle home via two buses like in previous years. Things are already looking up.