True Christmas Costs Nothing


What do you want for Christmas? I guess a lot depends on your personal situation. Presents are nice to give and to receive, while internet purchasing makes it ever easier to ensure that this year’s must-have gifts for our children reach them on time.

But many people long for things that money cannot buy: their health or repairing a broken relationship, getting a job or a roof over their head perhaps – or simply hope itself, a sense that things might get better. 

During my ministry it has always struck me as poignant how hard those with little try to be generous to others while the relatively well-off can be really quite miserly. In his renowned Victorian story ‘A Christmas Carol’, Charles Dickens rightly highlighted how cold-hearted and miserable a person Scrooge was, mirroring a divided society of the seriously rich, indifferent to the fate of the utterly impoverished.

We believe ourselves to be better, but there is a lot of talk these days about the wickedness of austerity politics, whether Tory or Tartan. As the recent Scottish Government budget shows however, matching popular rhetoric with political responsibility is a tough balancing act of hard economic choices. Every household knows the financial reality is that we have to live within our means.

I was born in 1951 into Austerity Britain as it was called. The nation was anxious to move on from the war years and there were frustrations about continuing rationing and shortages. In a rapidly changing global economy where everybody is our neighbour, today’s austerity is different. The challenge is the encouragement of responsible wealth generation, the progressive distribution of considerable existing resources and the proper care of the most vulnerable in society who might otherwise fall through the net.

The quality of family life and community care reveal a great deal about our moral compass as a society. As ever, children and the elderly are particularly at risk and, in the spirit of Charles Dickens, I believe passionately that we need to catch a grip before it is too late.

‘Christmas is for the children’ but Barnardo’s reports that currently 3.7 million children in Britain are living in poverty – that’s a quarter of all children – while 63% of children in poverty are actually in a household where someone works. Ten thousand Scottish families are known to be living in temporary accommodation. Unsurprisingly the education, health and daily lives of these children are adversely affected. What do they need for Christmas? The truth is we are falling behind the ambition of the Child Poverty Act of 2010 which is committed to eradicating child poverty.

Meanwhile Age UK says, ‘No one should have no one at Christmas’. Shockingly a million older lonely people go a month without talking to anybody. I believe that looking after people in the twilight of their lives is particularly worthwhile. However a perfect storm is brewing over the care of the elderly here in the UK. At a time when the number of longer-living elderly with physical and mental frailties is burgeoning, an escalating Living Wage for care staff is a long overdue recognition and reward for some of our most dedicated workers. But combined with a sharp reduction of local authority finance for the poorest elderly, and ever more expensive charges for self-funding residents means the fear is that many excellent and affordable care homes will simply go out of business, reducing desperately needed capacity.

‘Charity begins at home’ and as far as I can tell our prospects in Britain remain of serious concern. Food banks and charity shops organised by churches and community groups across Courier country report a continuing rise in the take up of their services. Likewise, uncomfortable as it may be for cheerful seasonal shoppers, the complex needs of Dundee’s city centre rough sleepers are not going to disappear anytime soon.

The daily craic at my local convenience store is I suspect what seems to keep some people going – it’s the one place they find a degree of warmth and dignity in their otherwise bleak lives.

The abiding images of 2015 have been of refugees of all ages flocking to Europe, fleeing persecution and poverty in the Middle East. Providing a welcome for them whilst caring for our own is a huge challenge, requiring completely fresh political imagination and leadership. 

In Dickens’s story Scrooge discovered Christmas just in time, before it was too late, his ‘humbug’ dismissiveness transformed into humility and jovial largesse. Christmas is a magical time to spend with family and friends, but sadly not so for everyone. Perhaps we can help an older person feel less lonely or bring some happiness to a poorer family?

Jesus was born in temporary accommodation in Bethlehem. The hospitable innkeeper reminds us that the enduring Christmas story is about keeping faith in human care and kindness. The true Christmas costs nothing – it is simply a gift for us to share generously with others.

Bishop Nigel’s  article in the Courier, a widely read daily Scottish newspaper published in Dundee published 23rd December 2015.

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