If an alien happened to land its UFO in the car park of your local Tesco sometime in the next few weeks and popped in for something to eat, would it have any idea if it was asked, why the shelves were stacked high with chocolate eggs?
This is obviously a ridiculous scenario, but how about if you asked the same question to any children who happened to be in the supermarket being dragged round by their parents? Would they be able to tell you the answer? Last year Travelodge ran a survey to find this out. It found that 53% of the children surveyed didn’t know the meaning of Easter and one-quarter thought that it is about celebrating the Easter bunny’s birthday. For those of us who care about this sort of thing, it’s pretty depressing. Easter like most other annual festivals has turned into an excuse for the retailers to sell as much as they can to us with little interest in the meaning behind it.
Maybe there’s something ironic about a Christian such as myself complaining that our festivals have been hijacked when several centuries ago that is exactly what Christianity did to various pagan ones in order to Christianise the culture. However, the tables have been turned once again and now we’re left with our festivals celebrating the god of commercialisation.
I was therefore rather pleased to find out that my local Tesco and Morrisons are now stocking Real Easter Eggs. This title is a bit of a misnomer as what exactly is a real Easter egg? In this case it is a Fairtrade chocolate egg that comes with the story of Easter inside it in the form of a poster and some stickers. It markets itself as, ‘The first and only Fairtrade chocolate Easter Egg to explain the Christian understanding of Easter on the box.’ The egg is produced by the Meaningful Chocolate Company, which if you look at their website is something of a cottage industry. Despite this in the three years since its launch, they’ve sold over 300,000 eggs mainly though their mail order business and churches. Last year these eggs were distributed to some MPs and this year a number of bishops have been lobbying the all of the major supermarkets to stock them, which has now happened. I’m sure the vast majority of people who buy these eggs will be Christian parents buying them for their children, but in one sense it doesn’t matter. What it does show is that there is still a demand for the real story of Easter to be given a place in the temples of consumerism.
All this leads on to Vicky Beeching’s article in the Independent with the frankly disturbing title of ‘Christian Easter eggs and child abuse: The creation of a parallel universe by the Church’. Vicky has been a high-profile Christian for a few years now through her worship albums, blogging and more recently her increasing presence in the media as a pundit and commentator. I have a lot of time for Vicky and what she has to say, but I was rather taken aback by her piece which criticises the Real Easter Eggs. Her argument is that producing Christianised versions of products already available at the supermarket or other shops further separates Christians from those around them by creating a ghettoised culture. Having Christian confectionary, jumpers or tea-sets for example doesn’t do anything to further the gospel and reinforces the sacred-secular divide in society. Vicky’s experience of living in the States where they have Christian versions of all sorts of stuff and the Christian merchandising industry is big business has understandably left her wary of this sort of product. In the past I’ve seen some of these on sites such as Ship-of-Fools and cringed in embarrassment at their tackiness and the way they’ve ripped off perfectly fine products already on the market by making a second-rate Christian version with a cheesy Christian slogan slapped on. I’ve secretly hoped that most of them will never make their way across the Atlantic.
As the Christian market is so much smaller in the UK, fortunately that’s unlikely to happen any time soon as there just isn’t enough demand. This can be a help and a hindrance. It’s incredibly hard for Christians to become ghettoised here in the UK compared to the US. It forces us to live in the culture, working out how we live out our faith in a society that isn’t always very accommodating of it and being constantly reminded that we’ve been called to be in the world, but not of it. On the other hand, for example, it means that the isn’t much money sloshing around in churches, meaning Christian projects and ventures can’t always be done as professionally and effectively as we might like.
If you look at the packaging for Real Easter Eggs, it’s not bad, but it doesn’t look like they had a very big budget. The stickers in particular aren’t going to win any awards. The eggs can’t compete with other brands on terms of looks, but they have their unique selling point; they’re made of decent Fairtrade chocolate and some of the profits are given to charity. That should be enough to stop them just being a Christian knock-off of a Smarties egg.
Danny Webster on his Broken Cameras blog wrote a swift response to Vicky’s article that agreed with much of my thinking. He finishes by writing:
‘Aside from communicating a message to the public, the eggs are sending a message to other manufacturers and sellers. They are providing consumers with a way of saying that they want to celebrate Easter, want to celebrate it through eating chocolate, and chocolate that is ethically produced. But they are also saying why they want to do that. And in doing so they may be making a small improvement in our collective public understanding of Christianity. Educating the world and not the ghetto. On balance I think these are good eggs.’
I think Vicky makes a valid point that producing Christian versions of commercial products can reinforce a them-and-us sacred/secular mentality amongst Christians, but there are two different things being lumped together. One has little value except to chase the Christian dollar or pound in the same way that we talk about companies targeting the ‘pink pound’ or ‘grey pound’. The other is looking to try to restore some balance to a de-Christianised culture where half of its children don’t understand the reason why they end up being given enough chocolate to make them sick one Sunday a year.
I remember when the British Christian band, Delirious? decided to release a few singles in the late 1990s and I along with many of my friends were hassling the shops to stock the CDs and trying to get Radio 1 to play their music. It wasn’t that we wanted to hear ‘our own’ music on the radio for a change, it was much more about believing that this music was really good, that it had a powerful message that wasn’t wrapped up in Christian jargon and we wanted the world to enjoy it with us.
The gospel message has never been just for Christians. I’m not interested in anything that encourages us to keep it to ourselves, but anything that creatively and thoughtfully allows it to be shared, even in just a small way, deserves to be supported.