THE CHURCH’s pleas for restraint during Advent have been countercultural for several decades, but never more so than this year. Shopping, rebranded “consumer spending”, has been elevated to the level of a key economic instrument. Indeed, judging by this week’s pre-Budget statement, it is the sole source of salvation for an economy slipping into recession. By loading all his tax cuts into VAT, the Chancellor has signalled that those who shop will benefit the most, and those who shop recklessly will benefit even more — all this after the blame for the present economic crisis has been laid on those who spent beyond their means. Even then, rewards from Monday’s VAT giveaway will be negligible. In order to save more than £15, consumers would have to exceed the average Christmas expenditure of £604.
There is a middle way between unpatriotic thrift and extravagance. This is to spend only on essentials. It is easy enough with intimate knowledge of the recipients — how worn their slippers are, which kitchen utensil they have just broken — but this is not information vouchsafed to present-buyers, unless, of course, they break a taboo and actually ask what somebody needs. The trade in frivolous non-essentials thrives precisely because no one really knows what anybody needs and does not wish to display his or her ignorance.
There is, though, a type of recipient whose need is all too obvious. Alternative gifts work so well because each item given to a school in Zambia, say, or a hospital in Orissa, is demonstrably useful. Nor can the surrogate recipient in the UK be disappointed: on the contrary, experience suggests that relief is the chief emotion on receiving a card telling of the gift of a chicken or a metal-working tool to someone who will make good use of it. Very few people in this country can be satisfied with their level of charitable giving, and here is an opportunity to give more at no cost to oneself. Finally, even the process of selecting an alternative gift is beneficial to all: it is only when the poverty of others is laid out in black and white — or, rather, on colourful web pages — that people in the developed world can put their own hardship into perspective.
The Church’s message must continue to be that Christmas is not about shopping, nor even giving. It is, instead, about receiving. At Christmas God gave the world the most extravagant gift imaginable, and this should be the emphasis of the Church’s teaching in the coming weeks: not that prayer and self-denial are intrinsically good in themselves, but that the forthcoming celebration of God’s gift of the Christ Child naturally elicits from believers the desire to be ready to welcome him. Simplicity and poverty are the marks of authentic Christian worship and lifestyle during Advent. These might well strike a chord in society at large this year.