It’s ok, I’m NOT referring to a very offensive swear word. I’m referring to a phenomenon that hits British shops in September and that makes me want to, at best, groan and at worst yell out loud in protest. That’s it, you’ve guessed it: Christmas merchandise.
Just the other week (when it was still September) I was in a well known supermarket, looking for a frozen chicken. Could hardly find any so, I thought, either the things had defrosted and walked off out of the shop in rather fetching cling-film outfits that the Pet Shop Boys would’ve been proud of, or they had unusually low stock. Seeking help from a nearby young shelf filler, he uttered that word that brings me out in a rash at this time of year: Christmas. He carelessly, cursorily informed me that there were very few frozen chickens “because they’re making space for the turkeys”.
“Turkeys?!” I responded. “Oh crikey. Not already! It makes me want to go around throwing all the Christmas stuff out of the shop!” His face was a mixture of amusement and oh wow, its a nutty woman kind of look; let’s just say his youth couldn’t quite comprehend the strength of my feeling. To him, Christmas no doubt means a good excuse for feeding up at mum and dads and going to parties.
I hastily added “Don’t worry, you don’t need to call the police, I’m not about to go and do throw stuff out of the shop!”
Joking aside, it really is so irritating. No, more than irritating. It devalues the essence of Christmas and oppresses those who are what I call Chief Christmas Organisers in their household (usually mums), telling them “Add this to your already full to-do list. Get in quick before others buy it all up. Fear! Worry! Shop!”
I love Christmas, at least, the essence of it: the lights, log fires, mulled wine, wild-eyed excited children, stockings, presents under the tree, singing and good food, not to mention what it means to us as a family who love Jesus and the incredible gift He is to us.
What I hate is the way the retail industry has turned it into a money-spinning exercise that has wrung the very life and joy out of what is intended, that it encourages greed for more than we already have or need, and has become a burden to mums and dads across the land. It stands in direct opposition to all that Jesus stands for – free grace, unconditional love and the handing over of burdens. Even if you don’t have a faith and view Christmas as mainly a celebration of tradition and an excuse to cheer ourselves up at the darkest time of the year (a great idea in itself), you can’t help but feel the retail industry has begun to wring it dry of its ‘cheer’.
For those who’ve lost jobs, on lower wages or had their benefits cut (i.e. many, many people this year) Christmas must loom on the calendar like a dark and dreadful thing. Children’s toys are becoming as sophisticated as they are expensive whilst children as young as 8 are wanting things that aren’t even toys – mobile phones and hair straighteners were two items I heard kids got at my children’s primary school last Christmas.
So what can we do to resist this, or at least make it a time of some measure of joy and perhaps even blessing?
For a start, let’s try and relax a bit and lower our expectations. Crikey, did I say that?! That’s quite a counter-cultural statement to make, isn’t it? Normally, we associate the word ‘Christmas’ with ‘stress’, lists upon lists, and anything far from peace. I know that might seem impossible if you have Hyacinth Bucket for a mother in law, but if it is possible, try it at least in your own home. Does it really matter if the table doesn’t look perfect on Christmas day, or that we’ve forgotten the ever-so-essential luxury biscuits from M&S? You won’t believe how many years it has taken my mum to stop buying nuts in their shells, years after any of us ever ate them, purely because it was tradition, or to buy a small stilton instead of a whole one. Now the stench of stilton only pervades the house for days rather than weeks.
Next, let’s take the bold step of not buying turkeys, wrapping paper, classic Christmas merchandise until at least mid November. I know, some people need to buy presents early to get that side of Christmas out of the way before it gets really busy for various reasons, but if we don’t need to, let’s hold back – surely that’s the only way to tell retailers that we don’t want the Christmas aisle whilst we still have our summer holiday tans? Don’t give into the fear that they’ll all be sold out. It’s crazy. Since when have crackers, wrapping paper or turkeys sold out before December 1st?
Another idea is to do something for others that will enrich their lives this Christmas. It could be offering to have someone for Christmas dinner who you know will be alone this year, or buying an alternative gift from one of the big charities such as a goat for an African family. I never forget the year a friend of mine gave a gift of a latrine for a community in Angola to her brother-in-law who was in Sri Lanka for Christmas the year of the Boxing Day tsunami. Thanking me for the suggestion, she said it was the only present he had that didn’t get trashed! See www.musthavegifts.org for some ideas.
A Christmas tradition that I’ve started since having kids which I’ve become very fond of is filling a shoe box for Operation Christmas Child. This is such a fantastic charity that distributes boxes to kids in Eastern Europe, Russia, Africa and Asia, often refugees, who’ll receive very little or nothing. It’s also a fantastic thing to do with your kids, teaching them to think of others at Christmas. I usually do one box for a girl from my daughter and one for a boy from my son, and I put little things aside for them throughout the year (brilliant for all those pencils and notepads my kids get in party bags that they don’t need) and then do a quick shop for toiletries in November.
Failing all this, you could offer to help out at a local charity or church on the days they provide a Christmas meal (this may not be practical if your kids are small, but once they start to reach 8 yrs and up, they can start coming along to this kind of thing).
Or just decide to give something to a homeless charity Crisis at Christmas, and maybe suggest the kids give some of their pocket money toward it?
On another tack, maybe we should stop and think before we decide to buy the biggest, latest, shiniest toy for our little ones. Do they really need another flash new toy? Will it mean they tire of what they already have? Will it just continue to feed the “he has that toy so I want it” phenomenon? Hey, you could be doing your classmates’ mums a favour by going simpler! Or perhaps you could buy them one amazing gift and suggest generous relatives limit their gifts to a certain amount, or maybe suggest they give them books that’ll give pleasure for years to come and won’t break?
Another idea is to turn Christmas into an opportunity to be creative and make some of your gifts? Costs less on your pocket, the environment and a homemade present is (usually!) more appreciated, assuming the end product isn’t like the jumpers our grannies used to knit us :-). I’ve started making felt jewellery in recent years as well as simple beaded necklaces on silver chains and I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to make them as well as give them. I’ve even had requests to make them as presents for others for a small price. And before you say, oh its alright for you, you’re obviously creative, and have loads of time, I have a friend who didn’t think she had a creative bone in her body and is busier than anyone I know, but is now making some great stuff thanks to a friend who opens her home every 3 weeks for us to come and make stuff together (along with the essential coffee, cakes, and chat!)
You may be planning on doing many or one of these. Fantastic! In which case, feel free to chuck a proverbial tomato at me and tell me to be quiet. Or you may be far too snowed under with under 5s or special needs children to even countenance these. If so, fine. Please go easy on yourself – you need it! But for those of us who’ve come out of those Seriously Hard Work years, it’s a great idea to consider these things now before we get sucked into the whole Christmas Consumer Vortex. Its not always easy to be counter-cultural, but as Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to be”. I, for one, know how much I need to stop and think before I set my foot on that conveyor belt……
For more inspiration along these lines, check out Stephen Cotterell’s ‘Do Nothing: Christmas is Coming‘, an alternative series of reflections for Advent which is a humorous take on subjects such as debt, in-laws, Christmas card lists and Santa….