The Archbishop of Canterbury has done it yet again. Several days ago I wrote about the fact that the press is lapping up his comments on society. This week exactly the same thing has happened regarding his comments on how the cost and pressures of Christmas are ruining it for too many people. Justin Welby’s interview for money-saving expert, Martin Lewis’ Money Show: 12 Saves Of Christmas on ITV on Tuesday, have led to a rash of newspaper articles and television features on what Christmas is turning into.
In one sense the attention this time is a bit odd, as his sentiments reflect what many of us already know. If you do a straw poll of people’s views on Christmas there’s a good chance that many will respond that it’s uncomfortably expensive and there is too much pressure to have a ‘perfect’ Christmas. It’s the same year on year, but maybe as the marketing of Christmas becomes increasingly big budget and sophisticated and as the squeeze on household incomes continues, an underlying, almost subconscious resentment is growing. However because so many of us feel the need to conform or have a bigger and better Christmas each time round, we just go through with it anyway. It might be fun while it lasts but the hangover can be painful. A survey by Moneysupermarket.com estimates that as a nation we spent £22 billion on Christmas last year. That’s £445 per person, with children receiving an average of £132 worth of presents each. Children might be pleased with this , but 47 per cent of parents feel pressured to spend more than they can afford. 34 per cent said they are prepared to spend whatever it takes to give their children a happy Christmas, which is a worrying statement in itself. A Which? survey from last Christmas found that 46 per cent of adults said they had used some form of debt to help them pay for Christmas and 90 per cent felt under pressure to spend too much.
All this spending and stress and yet 54 per cent of people think Christmas is overrated. For 51 per cent according to a 2010 ComRes poll, the birth of Jesus is irrelevant to their Christmas. It would appear to be the case that as we lose sight of the religious foundations of Christmas our focus turns instead to an unhealthy overconsumption of gifts and food in order to gain some sort of fleeting emotional pleasure from the whole experience. Partying and revelry have always been part of the winter festival celebrated on December 25th, but when it was Christianised and the attention was turned to Jesus’ birth, it gained a whole new dimension. There is still celebration, but this greatest gift of all was not wrapped in any finery that would be at home in the ostentatious adverts that are currently filling our TV screens . Instead of a slick, big budget marketing campaign with celebrity endorsements, the key players turned up dirty and tired on a donkey with the setting of a grimy space only fit for animals and a supporting cast of a few nobodies who were more used to sheep for company.
Christmas becomes far more valuable when we accept that the gifts we give each other are nothing compared to God’s heavenly gift embodied in a baby. The greatest joy at Christmas cannot be bought with any amount of money. What looks worthless on the outside brings eternal satisfaction, but if we choose to place the shiny, glittery things at the centre of Christmas then no matter how much effort we put in or how much we spend, we will never come away fully satisfied and with any sense of perspective on what really matters easily lost.
If we are to avoid Christmas slipping further into a hellish orgy of spending that many dread, but feel they have no choice but to enter into, then the voices of restraint need to be allowed to speak. If Christmas leads to financial worries, debt, strained relationships and mental health problems, then something is very wrong and we need to say so.
When I watched Martin Lewis’ Money Show on Tuesday I expected to see Justin Welby tackle this head on, but surprisingly there was an initial reticence. When asked by Lewis whether the secular gift giving element of Christmas should be reined back, his rather timid response was, “It’s obviously not what Christmas is about, but to be absolutely honest there’s not that much point in saying it because no one’s going to pay attention.” At this point Lewis jumped in: “No, I’m sorry, forgive me. We have to say it. I’m saying it. You have to say it.”
It’s unusual to hear someone telling this Archbishop of Canterbury that he is not being brave enough, but watching the programme, Martin Lewis’ almost religious fervour to see Christmas released from the grip of excessive spending was remarkable. He describes himself at one point to Justin Welby as “an evangelist” and that, “We’re singing from the same hymn sheet”. Talking about post-Christmas debt counselling he recommends for those struggling with the emotional side of debt that they contact Christians Against Poverty, “who are a cracking organisation.”
Lewis isn’t afraid to tell the audience the superficially unpopular message that if they can’t afford Christmas, to cut right back on spending and accept it. So often when people are told that they can change their bad habits, it gives them freedom and permission to realise that things can be different. Lewis’ message is full of common sense and wisdom. It shouldn’t be ignored.
Justin Welby has a great potential ally in Martin Lewis. They both want people to have control of their finances and in this case approach Christmas in a way that will lead to much more happiness. Welby has the spiritual authority and Lewis has the financial credibility. It would seem natural that Welby’s great mission to tackle financial mismanagement should include a reappraisal of Christmas which needs a Christian revival as much as financial reordering.
After Lewis’ reprimand, the Archbishop finally brought the elements of faith and finance that now dominate Christmas together beautifully. His final comment should be music to the ears of anyone who believes Christmas is worth fighting for:
“God gives us his son, Jesus Christ to give us full and abundant life. Giving at Christmas reflects the generosity of God. So be generous in a way that shows love and affection rather than trying to buy love and affection. You can’t buy it, you can show it and when you show it, it comes back at you with interest. Save up for the Christmas budget, be sensible, don’t put pressure on your finances – don’t make your life miserable with Christmas. Share love, affection, with reasonable gifts that demonstrate that you really care for someone. That makes for the best Christmas you could ever have.”