What is an ethical Christmas?

December 3, 2010
By Rev. Ian Galloway
Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

One of the dilemmas of the age is how to celebrate a Christian Christmas or, if you prefer, a mid-winter festival without costing the earth and without being labelled a scrooge!

We are told it is our duty to support the economy by shopping and economists monitor the retail sales figures with an eagle eye. An increase in consumer spending and everyone is happy; a glitch and the economy will catch another cold. As we consume more so our carbon footprint grows and the more we buy the more we think we need. Is this what an ethical Christmas is all about?

The Christian message is far from materialistic. There was a birth in a stable at a hard time of year, with shepherds for company; a picture that has no tinsel and, until the arrival of the wise men, no hint of extravagant expenditure. That child gave us the golden rule “love your neighbour (and the stranger) as you would have them love you”. Alongside the Christian story are the old stories of a midwinter festival, the celebration of the winter solstice and the turning of the year.

At Maes Howe in Orkney the passageway into the great chamber is precisely orientated to the setting of the midwinter sun. Maes Howe is part of the Orkney landscape and the ancient Orcadian rhythm of life. Christianity shares the midwinter festival with other faiths, each investing this mid-winter time with a spiritual importance: a turning point, the end of the year, the birth of something new, better and greater.

How then should we celebrate this in a way that does not trash the planet or do harm to others? If by our actions we cause harm to others then our celebrations can scarcely be called ethical. If by our excessive consumption we contribute to unhappiness elsewhere that becomes an ethical challenge to us to consider our choices.

This is not the time to rehearse the arguments about our carbon footprint and how it is hurting others; we all know it is and that we have to reduce our consumption. It is our consumption that drives the economy to bring huge container ships full of goods from factories in China to be sold in Scottish stores at Christmas. It might make sense to some economically, but can be called ethical? It is certainly not sustainable.

Excessive consumption does not make us happier; Christmas and New Year are peak times for violence in the home, according to Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). An advent calendar highlighting the horror of domestic abuse in Scotland was unveiled by the VRU on 1 December this year drawing attention to the shocking relationship between the holiday season and the increase in domestic abuse. Excessive consumption is no protection against violence and no route to happiness.

The human condition is rooted in the search for contentment. That place where peace is felt within as well as achieved in others. That is something that can never be purchased, only experienced. It comes from the quality of our relationships with each other and the world about us. That quality is nurtured and fed by that most precious of gifts, time; time to be together, time to reflect, time to be still, time to see what we miss even when its right in front of us. It is a gift we can both give ourselves and give to others with little cost but great value. We can pause from the hurly burly, reflect on the year we have lived, celebrate our blessings with our friends and family and give to those we love (and even those we struggle to love) something special that cannot be bought.

These are not new messages, they will not cost the earth but they may change the world. The break from work, for those that can enjoy it, is a once in a year chance to do all these things. It is a chance to meet people we may have lost touch with during the year, to remind ourselves of the invaluable and essential gift of friendship. We can celebrate together in a church and reach out to people of other faiths. We can still give material gifts that are simple and personal, gifts that will endure; gifts with time and attention, gifts that have a value that is not about the price tag.

We can buy local, buy fair trade, or buy a gift from one of Scotland’s superb charity shops – shopping that gives us a better chance of knowing the impact of our gifts and improving the chances that they will cause good not harm to those that made them. It might not change the world immediately but it will witness to another way of being; as a baby in a stable once did.

We can take the opportunity at Christmas to pause from our normal lives and reconnect to others around us, discover the contentment that we search. We can celebrate and it need not cost the earth.