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The cost of Christmas in the ‘financially crippling’ 1970s – versus today

Vintage Christmas
Vintage Christmas

It was the era of disco, vol-au-vents and flares. But while we may no longer yearn for sequined trousers, in many ways little has changed since Christmas in the 1970s.

Inflation is still sky-high, industry strikes threaten festive gatherings and the Conservatives are down again in the polls.

Many key concerns for households remain the same. What meat (or vegetarian alternative) will be the centrepiece for the Christmas dinner? Where can the best deals be found? What are the top toys and gifts of the season?

Despite these parallels, the cost of Christmas has soared in the past half-century. The average British household will spend £1,811 on festivities this year, the equivalent of 80pc of the average monthly income, according to analysis by MoneySuperMarket.

A typical family of four is expected to spend £31 on Christmas dinner, according to research consultancy Kantar.

Meanwhile, in 1975, a household’s entire December food shop would have cost £12.50, according to the National Food Survey. Adjusted for inflation, this is equivalent to around £93 today.

Scrimping and saving were recurring themes throughout Telegraph food and retail articles during the 70s – when, as promoted by one 1974 Christmas gift guide, a full traditional Christmas lunch came to just £2.50 (£18-£19 adjusted for inflation).

“Defiantly, and we think gallantly”, wrote Fanny Craddock in 1976, the “mums and homemakers of Britain are definitely determining to make Christmas as much like one in the good old days as may be managed in these financially crippling times.”

Under the nom de plume ‘bon viveur’, Ms Craddock advised housewives to consider making Chocolate Peppermint Creams at home, the cost of which she described as “astronomical when shop-bought”.

In December 1974, agricultural correspondent Godfrey Brown praised women who had ordered their Christmas turkey earlier in the month.

Shortages and supply chain issues had increased prices for ‘best hen turkeys’ by 8p per lb, from 32p to 40p.

‘Housewives buying at the last moment may have to pay 55p to 60p per lb’, he noted sternly.

Prime beef joints were also ‘dearer’, with topside top-rump and silverside selling for 75p to 80p that month.

The prices and choices for the Christmas meat centrepiece varied over the years. Beef, ‘once the poor man’s dinner’, was returning to fashion ‘among the more prosperous’ in 1973, while whole gammon ham on the bone sold for 43p to 45p per pound.

In 1976, beef brisket, (80p boned and rolled) was again suggested by Kathleen Welsh as a cheaper alternative to goose, at £1 per bird.

‘The Christmas of the saucepans, towels and tablecloths’

Presents often tended towards the practical in the ’70s, with John Lewis’ staff magazine ‘The Gazette’ entitling one 1975 article: “All they want for Christmas is a saucepan”.

Chain shop Heelas, now the Reading branch of John Lewis, advertised Christmas 1975 as “the Christmas of the saucepans, towels and tablecloths”.

This pragmatic approach applied to all generations – with one 1971 Telegraph gift guide noting that “most children today get enough pocket money to buy, rather than make, their family’s Christmas presents”.

The writer, Victoria Reilly, suggested grandchildren buy their grandparents an “aluminium garden tool designed to help stiffening bones pick up leaves and other garden clobber” – available for £1.25 from the Garden Department of the Army and Navy Stores (£12-13 today).

‘As for the giving of presents the other way round, most grandparents yearn to spoil their grandchildren at Christmas,” continued Ms Reilly.

“But with spiralling costs, such good intentions may have to go by the board this year,” she added.

Her two ‘bargain’ suggestions for grandchildren were a road signs game for 54p and a set of step-by-step recipe cards for 49p.

However, slightly more moneyed relatives could select from a number of toys advertised on the same page. These included a teddy bear with his own striped pyjamas for £4.50, or an £8.95 portable cassette player from WH Smith.

The Goblin Teasmade and fondue sets remained popular options throughout the decade, according to John Lewis, costing between £16.50 to £30 and £9.95 respectively in 1975.

Many of the most popular toys in the 70s remain at the top of present lists today - albeit for heftier price tags.

An Etch a Sketch cost 99p in 1971, and £25 in 2023. The first-ever Dungeons & Dragons set sold for £3.69 – around £28 in today’s money - while kits in 2023 can cost more than £80.

Among this year’s top toys are the decidedly flashier ‘Barbie The Movie 2023 Dreamhouse Playset’, for £199, and the LEGO Le Mans Hybrid Hypercar, for £170.

‘A high pressure environment to spend more’

Flashy American spending, persuasive advertising, shopping malls, and the ability to buy on credit are all factors in the increase in household spending on Christmas, says consumer rights campaigner Martyn James.

“The pressure to spend is high,” he adds.

“It might not feel like it sometimes. But as a society, we’ve become more aspirational in terms of what we want or desire and what we can potentially afford.

“Horrifyingly, there is considerable evidence that doorstep lending is back with a vengeance. Payday loans have reinvented themselves as ‘lifestyle borrowing’. The high interest is still there, it’s just the terms that are longer. Credit card interest rates are going up dramatically.”

Ian Futcher, a financial planner at Quilter, agrees that Christmas spending has made up a ‘significantly larger proportion’ of household budgets over the past half-century.

“Everything from turkey to tinsel is more expensive than ever”, he says.

“A cultural shift towards more extravagant celebrations, driven by images of lavish festivities, has also created a high-pressure environment to spend more.

“Christmas is a time for giving and celebrating, but it shouldn’t compromise your financial health.

“By planning ahead, being mindful of spending, and focusing on what truly matters, we can enjoy a merry and financially sound Christmas.”

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