I looked out over a sea of colour when taking my last assembly of the year; Rudolph, Santa, elves and even the odd Elsa gazed back at me. Students and staff of the Perse Upper were enthusiastically supporting Save the Children’s Christmas Jumper Day, ‘making the world better with a sweater’ as the slogan goes. This simple action – donating £2 to sport a festive knit or improvise with tinsel – was both thoroughly festive and rather poignant. As I asked students to consider giving the gift of a kind act this Christmas, I was struck by the realisation that they had chosen to spend the last day of term doing just that.
It is all too easy to be swept up in the commercial frenzy of the latest must-have item, and to believe that obtaining it – for ourselves or others – will bring happiness. I had not heard of Black Friday until this year. Born in the USA, it is now being adopted here. While I like a bargain as much as the next person, the phenomenon has some serious drawbacks. Black Friday 2014 for example brought ugly scenes of shoppers in supermarkets fighting it out over cut-price TVs.
Is this really how we want to begin our countdown to Christmas?
There is a long history of gift-giving during the festive season that stretches back to the Romans, who gave wax candles during the festival of Saturnalia, perhaps to signify the light returning after the solstice. In the Bible, The Wise Men offered the baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, while for Christians the greatest present of all was God’s gift of his son to human kind.
Until recently the gifts we gave each other tended to be of a modest nature. Rising incomes in the late 20th century meant people could afford to spend more at Christmas, and retailers launched advertising campaigns to encourage them to part company with their money. Thus began the battle of Christmas TV adverts which this year has seen Monty the Penguin from John Lewis take on Ant and Dec for Morrisons, whilst M&S fairies have battled with the Sainsbury’s Christmas truce. Christmas is truly a retail phenomenon. The tonnage shipped by Santa and his elves with assistance from Yodel and Parcelforce has grown significantly. The average Britain now spends £350 on Christmas presents, with many spending thousands.
Last week I challenged students to re-think what giving means this Christmas. Where might their time and money be invested if not in buying extravagant gifts? What good could that bring others? Why not begin January with a full heart rather than an empty pocket?
Christmas is a time when we salute wise men who paid homage to a lowly child and in doing so gave gifts to the poor. We remember the importance of inclusivity and how the shepherds, outcast from the Judean world, were brought into the Christmas message and given a central role. And we sing carols that proclaim the importance of peace on earth and goodwill to all.
We have become rather unimaginative in our gift giving by comparison to these presents. Christmas is about so much more than Black Friday televisions. Modern society has a tendency to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. This Christmas why not add friendship, kindness, good cheer and warm hearts to lists and choose gifts accordingly.