Christmas shopping is crackers
I just got back from a quick trip to the shops to get some essentials for dinner. I came home with a tightness in my stomach that I hadn’t bargained for. My entire being went into sensory overload as I entered my local supermarket to be confronted with the massive montage put there to remind me it’s that time of year again. My ears were bombarded with Christmas tunes whose sole aim was to lure me into the belief that time is of the essence if I am to avoid disappointment. I had to dig deep to ignore the distractions and stay on my simple task of gathering necessary items for dinner. I went down aisle four to pick up some lentils only to discover that they had been replaced by gaudy boxes containing soaps-on-ropes, gift packs of fluffy eye-masks and hand-creams, mugs in plastic, shiny wrappers filled with sugary walking sticks and colourful assortments of nuts and chocolates not to mention the blooming crackers (or bonbons as they are ridiculously called here in Australia) that encourage us to throw even more plastic into our already overstuffed rubbish bins.
No sign of Jesus Christ
Scattered amongst the gift offerings were the customary batches of charity greeting cards that aim to make us feel less guilty for all the waste products we’re going to unleash into the environment. The cards carried images that varied from surfing koalas in Santa hats to red-breasted robins on snow-laden branches. Unless my eyes were deceiving me, I did not see a single image that represented the true meaning of Christmas – the birth date of the Christ child. According to the Christian faith, God sent his son, Jesus, into the world to be born. His birth brought great joy to the world. Shepherds, wise men, and angels all shared in the excitement of knowing about this great event. They knew this was no ordinary baby. The prophets had told of His coming hundreds of years before. Yet no sign was there of this important aspect of Christmas in my local supermarket.
C is for consumerism
My trip to the shops today confirmed what I have been thinking for a long time, that Christmas is more about consumerism than it is about celebrating a day in the Christian calendar. The fact that December 25th is one of the most important dates for Christians is all but forgotten. Instead, it has become an excuse for many people to come together, exchange gifts, eat and drink themselves into a coma and start a new year with hefty credit card bills. According to one UK analyst, British people spend around five billion pounds on food shopping alone in the last days leading up to Christmas. Imagine what that figure would look like if we were to combine it with the rest of the world’s spending? So influenced are we by the power of marketing that it has us dancing to its loud tunes from mid-October, telling us that we must get organised or we might fail ourselves and others. Across the world right now there are billions of pigs, turkeys, cows, ducks and prawns and many other unsuspecting creatures being farmed and eventually slaughtered for our Christmas banquet.
Okay so I hear you say that there’s nothing wrong with people wanting to come together to enjoy themselves right? If only it were as simple as that. How many of you have been stressed by the sheer pressure that Christmas brings with it every year? We worry about what to buy our nearest and dearest and whether it will be good enough. Some people allow this pressure to put them into debt which then plays on their mind. We fret over where and with whom we will engage in the eating and drinking frenzy. Families argue about whose turn it is to host the lunch or dinner and then complain about all the work involved thus putting a dampener on the meal when it is finally served. People trying to manage their weight feel guilty, others struggling with alcoholism sink into despair with the drunkenness around them. For those who have lost loved ones, Christmas can intensify their feelings of grief and sadness. And for many it is a time of real loneliness.
The origin of Christmas
I was brought up a Catholic and have therefore never questioned the importance of December 25th. For the purposes of this blog, I decided to look into the origins of the date itself and found an interesting fact that I didn’t know. Since well over a thousand years ago, pagan festivals were big across northern Europe. Pagans revered nature and paganism is often described as an ‘Earth Religion’. Their festivals were seasonal, following the solstices and equinoxes. Still to this day these festivals take place around the world. The spring equinox is celebrated on March 25th when nature bursts into life across the northern hemisphere. Because the Bible doesn’t give a specific date for the birth of Christ, it made sense for Christians to mark Christ’s conception on this date. When you add nine months of gestation to this you get December 25th. Until the 18thCentury, the winter solstice or Yule as it was commonly known, would entail a week of feasting, gift giving and revelry. With the coming of the industrial age, the festival became known as Christmas and was adapted into a single day in order to keep the wheels turning. People weren’t happy with the new measures in place that cut short their lengthy celebrations. But in 1843 a book appeared in England that helped change people’s minds and hearts. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens catered to the public’s craving for ghost stories and at the same time, brought some sentimentality to the meaning of Christmas. It sold 6,000 copies in a week – a figure that even today would place it near the top of the bestseller lists. This quote from Scrooge’s nephew reminds us what Christmas is meant to be about: “I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time […] as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave.”
Time to open shut-up hearts
It is too easy to be led down the wrong path about Christmas by what we are fed by marketers. We want to have a cheerful experience in a delightfully decorated home, surrounded by people who love, cherish and adore us and to share a delicious meal that is cooked to perfection. We have expectations of others which end up causing us stress. We see people posting their picture-postcard perfect lives on social media and feel we’re failing by comparison. And it doesn’t just end when everyone goes to bed that night. There are the near-violent shopping expeditions on Boxing Day to buy more stuff we don’t need. And then there’s all that weight to be lost, pressure of New Year Resolutions looms over us for days like a guilty conscience. Many of the gifts that were bought in haste will lie unused in a cupboard somewhere. Some of us will look forward to a new year so that we can put some distance between ourselves and the stress of Christmas. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be like this. What if we were to take a step back and get to the crux of what makes people happy? I know that deep down what I want more than anything else this Christmas is to be with those that I love. As I get older, I am growing more acutely aware of the limited time we have on this planet and more and more I find myself questioning how I spend that time. My mother recently told me that the thing she values the most is not a gift in the form of an expensive piece of jewellery or a rare painting but a gift in the form of a person’s time. To give our time is to engage fully with someone, to be attentive to their needs and to respond to them in a way that makes them feel worthy, loved and respected. I remember when I lived in Singapore amongst the wealthy expat community, I met a child by the pool one day who was very sad. I got chatting to him and could see that he had a really expensive MacBook on his lap, as he sat in the shade of an umbrella with a face that looked so out of place in the luxurious surroundings. I asked him the reason for his sadness and he told me that he never saw his parents from one end of the week to the next. He was left to his own devices in the care of the maid. What he wanted more than anything, he said, was for his parents to spend time with him. No gadget could ever compensate for this.
Presence instead of presents
So why not consider gifting your time to someone this Christmas. If you have your family close by then consider yourself lucky. For me it’s more challenging because of the oceans that separate me from some of my loved ones. I will have to make do with technology such as Skype or Facetime to engage with them but I won’t let that stop me from setting aside my time to give to those I care about. I am blessed to have my own little family here in Perth who I will be able to give of my time to face-to-face. They will each receive from me a card that says ‘Happy Christmas. My gift to you is my time. I want to spend it with you.” It might not go down well with my kids at first, but it will be of more benefit to them in the long run than the latest iPhone could ever be.
Remember it’s your presence that counts, not your presents.
Thanks for taking the time to read this week’s blog. Please share it with your friends and family in the hope that it will inspire them to stress less and to give you the gift of their time.