Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Simply Christmas

At the end of November we all heard a lot about Black Friday, if you were anything like me this was the first time you ever had heard the term. Saturday was dubbed "Panic Saturday" as it was apparently the day that "everyone" was out buying their last minute gifts. I guess I am not the only one who feels that  the real meaning of Christmas has been hijacked to serve the interests of rampant consumerism. I am glad to say that I did absolutely no shopping either on Black Friday or Panic Saturday and I hope I never will.
I really don't think I am too  much of a "Bah Humbug" character. I love Christmas. I just think that it is not enhanced by rushing around  panic buying or elbowing a stranger in the eye in an attempt to get a bargain. This year I have instituted a small revolution in our house and brought in the "twenty pound Christmas" rule. The basis of this is that a. nobody spends more than twenty pounds on anyone else in the family b. everyone has to name a gift for around or under that amount or put in a request for hard cash. The reason for this change is not really parsimony, although our income has reduced this year, it is more that I found we were buying things for each other which never got used. Every Christmas, everyone puts their presents into a plastic bag to take up to their room/ put away later. Every year for the last few years, the bags of  my sons and my husband remained in the corner gathering dust for months. At some point, usually in the Summer holidays, I would throw stuff away or take it to the charity shop. It  seems such a waste and I just long for a simpler and more, well adult approach to Christmas which says we don't really need to buy a lot for each other.
I fall in love more and more with the idea of Quaker simplicity. I have come to think that when we have less things in our lives, it can make room for us to value the important things more. We are all being sold a massive lie that buying stuff brings us happiness, and it really isn't difficult to work out that we are being sold that lie because it lines other people's pockets, even if it leads in some cases to families crippled by debt and to  negative economic impacts for so many of us. The simple truth is that you will be just as happy without the latest new product, in fact you will be more so because you will  search for joy and meaning elsewhere.
I am beginning to think the same way about success. An acquaintance of ours used to send us a Christmas letter every year, you know the sort that is designed to make you feel inadequate about your own life because everyone has been promoted and the kids have got fifteen A* at GCSE. Then they had a really difficult year - we got no letter and they did not get in touch with us ever again, we only heard on the grapevine what had happened. In spite of writing to us every year, they had built up a barrier of their own success and perfection and sadly we were not the sort of friends that they could be their real selves in front of.
Jesus was born into poverty and stigma in dangerous and difficult circumstances. He came to be flesh and blood and part of the message of Christmas is that we do not need to be afraid to be our very human selves. God delights in our growing and learning but he does not care how rich, clever, beautiful or successful we are and sometimes these things can be barriers to us drawing close to him.
I wish you a simple and joyful Christmas this year :)


  1. There is an idea I have been playing around with that I haven’t overly developed at present. It isn’t necessarily mine either – indeed it owes much to sociologists such as Max Weber – and it also forms a good deal of the epistemological foundation of my doctoral thesis. What I am saying is that religion tends to manifest itself in ways that echo the dominant means of both social and economic production of a given society.
    It is no coincidence that the Reformation occurred at a time of an economic and epistemological revolution: feudal economies (in Northern Europe) were giving way to nascent capitalism, with a growing, literate mercantile class, who were gaining increasing civil power and control of a greater proportion of a society’s wealth. In addition to the invention of printing which allowed for a greater privatisation of religion.
    There are many more examples of this change in religion which has its roots in social, political and economic changes: it also gives rise to a change in how we imagine ‘God’ and the role of religion in society.
    Quaker simplicity can perhaps find a place on the periphery of modern day Christianity, but is at odds with many of its expressions. Individualism and materialism are a major theme in the culture of many manifestations of contemporary Christianity. If you have the misfortune to have any firsthand dealings with much African Christianity you will know that material wealth and possessions are seen as signs of God’s blessing and overt ostentation is not uncommon (even if it is funded via and over reliance on credit or dishonesty). Similarly there are many expression of American Pentecostal and Evangelical Christianity where health and wealth are not a specific teachings, yet nevertheless are part of the culture of these churches: material possessions are a sign of God’s blessing....
    Such ostentation may seem at odds with indigenous English Christianity, but I don’t think this is the case really: we rarely see vicars living in council houses and there is a hierarchy to church life that tends to mirror the social hierarchy of wider society. Similarly in some churches (e.g. Anglican Evangelical churches) the ideal life many adherents aspire towards is that of a certain species of comfortable, middle-class culture (I believe it is why you often see embryo Evangelical vicars spending between three and ten years working in law or accountancy or the City before heading off to theological college: they want to be Anglican priests, but also have a professional middle-class lifestyle to match that of their parishioners).
    It is tempting to see ‘Black Friday’ (I’d never heard the term before either) as a curse of our age – but it isn’t: materialism has driven the world since Adam was a lad. Scripture is certainly full of references to wealth – it is only Jesus who is a bit of a killjoy on that score – and many of his most devout followers have little time for Jesus’ words when it comes to money in the bank or possessions: ‘Thou shalt always justify thyself and thy actions...’ is a much beloved commandment of many of the faithful – particularly where self-interest is concerned.

    There is also a danger of taking pride in one’s humility – as a novice monk I came to see that much monastic ‘poverty’ was a bit of a stunt, put on for guests. I know of one Anglican convent where guests (and the community’s website) rejoice in the simplicity of the common life... conveniently forgetting that the community has a good £20million in CASH at the bank – almost £1million for each sister (the Charity Commission website is a mine of useful information... and I would advise everyone to read the financial reports of their favourite good cause or institution!).
    As for our Christmas it was simple – and I even washed someone’s feet (literally) on Boxing Day (a disabled friend stays for Christmas and he doesn’t have access to the aids he uses in his shower at home, so I wash his feet). But as I age, I learn less is more, when it comes to Christmas, or anything for that matter.

  2. I certainly preferred our slightly scaled down Christmas. I hope you enjoyed yours as well:)

  3. As I tidied around the kitchen this evening I thought it curious that we haven't even opened the Bombay Sapphire Gin (a present), the Bacardi has less than a few measures missing from it, and the second bottle of wine bought for Xmas dinner remains unopened... The only bottle of alcohol we finished was the advocaat - as our main drink over the festive season was snowballs - evidently we're turning into old women... My favourite present this Christmas is the first two parts of Alan Johnson's autobiography. Enough pleasure for me!

    I hope you had a lovely Xmas!

  4. We got the same present! I bought Alan Johnson's This Boy for Kev for his birthday. He really enjoyed it and then I read it. Kev then got me the postman one for Christmas. This was partly on the basis that Kev wants to read it too but that suits me just fine- two people got presents in one! Apart from the Kev got me a calendar featuring works of Gaudi and a box of bitter mints. Just what I wanted!
    Looking back to your previous comment, I guess you are right that religion tends to manifest itself in ways that echo the social and economic trends in its society.Rather sad though as I think faith *ought* to make us think more carefully about the society around us and live counter culturally if that seems to be right, as it so often does. Religion can have this effect, I think, but it tends to be when numbers are small not when it becomes mainstream in any sense of the word. That makes sense really as when religion gains any real influence in society it will either have to reflect its values or it will shape them to some extent so either way it will mirror the society around it. It might be worth us thinking about the possibility that Christianity in Britain, as it loses its place in the mainstream of society, does gain that ability to be counter cultural. I think that happens but in very fragmented ways and with different emphasis in different places of the Church/ different denominations. The C of E is still also to some extent in thrall to the power and influence it had in previous generations and its investment in the mainstream plus the need to attract punters, of course.
    Just some random thoughts really here, not ones I've particularly thought through.