Irish families spend twice as much on Christmas as their German counterparts. Now - with the worst of the bust behind us - are we intent on splashing out even more? Deirdre Reynolds reports
After six years of 'Scroogenomics', Irish shoppers appear to be taking the advice of Frozen's Queen Elsa this Christmas, and letting go.
As mums and dads across the country battle it out for the last of the €45 Disney dolls, featured on last week's Late Late Toy Show, consumers here are tipped to splash almost €4 billion in stores this festive season.
With seasonal spending predicted to rise to €3,960 million, according to Retail Ireland this week, Santa is set to come early for shopkeepers - delivering the biggest spending spree since the crash.
"The Irish retail sector has had some very tough years, but there is now cause for cautious optimism," says Retail Ireland director Thomas Burke. "The next few weeks are by far the most important trading period of the year, and key indicators are pointing in the right direction.
"More people are at work, disposable income is rising and the Irish consumer is more positive about the future," he adds. "This should translate into a really strong Christmas period for the sector. This is good news for the economy; it means more jobs and more tax revenue."
By now, more than half the population - 54pc - has already started their Christmas shopping, with just one in 10 leaving it until the last minute, one recent survey found.
Either way, the average family is expected to spend up to €750 more in December compared to other months of the year.
At Dundrum Town Centre, where the overflow car park is sure to be in operation as shops stay open until 8pm this weekend, it's jingle all the way says general manager Don Nugent: "Over the past few months, the centre has been consistently busy.
"Shoppers are well-organised this Christmas. They've done their research and are planning their purchases."
If Retail Ireland's calculations ring true at checkouts nationwide, it will once again make Ireland the biggest spenders in Europe at Christmas.
Last year, Deloitte's annual consumer survey revealed that, despite reining in spending by 1.7pc, Irish shoppers would still spend more than twice as much on gifts, food and socialising as their German counterparts - €894 compared to €399.
After more than half a decade of austerity, blitzed by festive advertising and seduced by snow-sprinkled shop windows, as a nation, we still haven't learned to say 'ho-ho-no' at Christmas, reckons David Quinn of Investwise.ie: "Unfortunately, from my side as a financial planner, I don't see that people have learned all that many lessons - and that is definitely borne out more at this time of year than any other because there's such pressure on people to spend.
"If you take the average couple in their 40s with two kids, they're living month to month anyway, so Christmas is just extreme added pressure. A lot of it goes on the credit card and it's paid off between January and March, or else people dip into savings. They don't budget for it, anyway."
In the wake of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, when some online and high street stores slashed prices by as much as 75pc, many yuletide shoppers here could already be in the red, he warned: "The retail industry is pushing so hard to try and recover its own numbers [that] it's creating hype around the likes of Black Friday, which never happened here before that I can remember.
"Retailers are trying to extend the Christmas shopping period by an extra two weeks, or at least a week, because they know that if people spend early, they'll spend again just out of habit, which is naturally what happens. No one who buys all their Christmas presents in the last week of November then sits on their hands and buys nothing for the rest of the season.
"I'm always trying to get clients to cut up their credit cards," adds the financial adviser. "My motto is: 'If you can't afford it, don't buy it'. That advice works very well every other month of the year - but it's a disaster this month."
At €100, Boomer Dino Snaptail - a robotic dinosaur also shown recently on RTE's annual Toy Show - is just one of the year's most coveted toys which could make parents' savings extinct.
Test-driven by presenter Ryan Tubridy during the broadcast, electric ride-on Razor Crazy Cart comes with an even more mammoth price tag of €450.
"Personally, I find Christmas shopping very stressful," says Simon Moynihan of price comparison website Bonkers.ie. "And I think the level we're expected to step up to takes away from what Christmas is supposed to be all about. The worry is not so much to spend time with your family and friends, but to run around getting everyone a gift so they won't be disappointed, or think you're scabby."
"Over the last few years, people have become very conscious of the price of things like a cup of coffee," he adds. "Yet when it comes to Christmas shopping, many people dislike the process so much that they leave it till the last minute, and end up paying far more than they should - myself included."
"While I don't particularly like seeing American traditions like Black Friday and Cyber Monday brought into Ireland, one thing it has done is show people that there's actually good value out there," he adds. "My concern would be that people would get themselves into debt to finance the splurge that retailers are expecting.
"Credit card debt has not gone down, and incomes have been falling every single year, so are people going to add to that debt or go into savings because they're sick of having frugal Christmases?"
Even Santa is loosening his belt a little this year, says Dan Young, who's been dying his beard white every Christmas for the past 11 years to give the man in the red suit a dig out at Stephen's Green Shopping Centre in Dublin.
"Children are definitely asking for a little more this year," says Maryland native Dan, who lives in Kildare, "not necessarily the number of presents, but the size of the present.
"For instance, whereas last year they may have wanted something like a phone as their main present, this year they're looking for a phone and a cover. But they're also extremely appreciative of whatever they get."
"Eleven years ago, when I started as Santa, children would come in with lists as long as their arm," he tells. "Now they only ask for one or two things, and understand why we're celebrating Christmas in the first place. Only twice so far this year has someone spent five minutes rattling off a list of things they want. My answer to that is always: 'It's not a shopping list, it a list of suggestions for Santa - any one of which will put a smile on your face on Christmas morning'.
"Needless to say it's 'Frozen this' and 'Frozen that'," laughs Dan, who'll be residing in Santa's grotto until December 23. "Even some of the boys are asking for the Queen Elsa doll. I've joked that I could give some of the kids 'Frozen' peas and they'd still be delighted!"
In the week that 43-year-old Kilkenny man John Corrie, who was homeless, was found dead in a Dublin doorway, many adults here would just be happy to receive a warm hat or scarf this festive season, according to the Peter McVerry Trust.
As part of its annual Christmas appeal, the charity is urging shoppers to consider those in need while decking the halls, says spokesperson Francis Doherty: "Hats, scarves, jumpers, socks and underwear are all in huge demand among our front-line service.
"We work with a lot of young people under 35 who would spend a lot of time in emergency accommodation, so things like DVDs, video games or gift vouchers for Dunnes Stores or Penneys are also very popular."
"Throughout the recession people have been very good to us," he adds. "Even if they can't afford to make a financial donation, they might throw an extra something into the shopping basket to drop into our head office at Mountjoy Square."
Not everyone is as grateful for their gifts though. In a survey conducted by high-end department store Harvey Nichols, based in Dundrum, nearly half of all adults admitted to being disappointed with at least one present they received last year, leading almost a quarter to return the item in the New Year.
Women, it found, were the most difficult to please, with 51pc unhappy with Santa on Christmas morning, compared to 48pc of men. Meanwhile, in homes throughout Ireland and the UK, €808 million worth of unwanted gifts were left languishing under the tree.
"People get really carried away with buying presents for brothers, sisters, friends, the postman, their favourite barman," says David Quinn of Investwise, "and it's all just completely unnecessary. A lot of it is done for optics and ego, to look like you're doing well and you're generous, when all you're being generous to is the credit card company.
"January is such a grim, depressing month for those who've overspent at Christmas. A lot of people are almost embarrassed to come to me in January, so they tend to do a month of black tea and toast, then come to me in February.
"I understand that it's very, very difficult to say 'no' to kids when they're looking for that Elsa doll or Boomer dino," he adds. "My best advice is to make Christmas as great as possible for the kids, and leave the adults out of it. "At the end of the day, how many Christmas presents do mum and dad really remember - whereas the kids remember every single one."