Friday 2 January 2015

Forget Ye Merry Gentlemen - At Christmas We All Need A Rest

It's the time of year when many people are beginning to move back into the normal rhythm of things after a well-earned seasonal slumber. Christmas is supposed to be our annual period of national hibernation, where we retreat from the demands of our everyday lives to rest and to spend time with the people we care about. That's what it's supposed to be. Is it really most people's experience?

I spent most of Christmas Day morning this year asleep. My family and I had gone to a Watchnight service on Christmas Eve and I was pretty tired. I was also tired because of my Christmas job, which meant that I was working on both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. I was in need of rest. Let me say in passing that you can only appreciate the true carnage of the winter sales once you've worked in retail on Boxing Day.

There are two common reproaches which are commonly heard within Christian circles regarding Christmas. One is that Christmas has been secularised, that we've lost the true meaning of the celebration over the years by editing God out of the story. That we need to 'put Christ back into Christmas'. The other is a complaint about consumerism, that all the shopping and the presents and the ensuing financial burden isn't healthy for us. We make these criticisms with a smile, of course, lest we be accused of being Scrooge-like party-poopers. The anti-secularisation and anti-consumerism agendas may have a lot to recommend them. But I wonder if, by coming back to them year after year, we may have missed an equally harmful trait about how we celebrate Christmas as a culture: a lack of collective rest. I'll stay clear of the other two complaints in order to focus on this third problem.

It used to be that Britain largely ground to a halt over Christmas. Doctors and nurses continued running our hospitals and the emergency services remained on standby. But, mostly, people were given time off to spend with their families (unless, of course, I'm pining for an ideal that never was?). Recently, however, the number of occupations that require people to work during the holidays has sky-rocketed - not just paramedics and support workers but droves upon droves of sales assistants.

If there's any indication of the corrosive lack of rest in our culture then it is the phenomenon of the Christmas Day sale (apparently partaken of this year by 8 million people). Call me traditional but the thought of minimum wage workers trudging around industrial warehouses, packaging parcels for overenthusiastic consumers, makes me more than a little depressed. It makes you wonder what the point of the whole occasion is. Are we meant to look forwards to Christmas Day itself, which the shops have been building up incessantly since October? Or to the sales which begin immediately afterwards? Are we supposed to have a day off to enjoy or should we spend it shopping on our phones during Christmas dinner? Perhaps between Super Saturday, Manic Monday and Slap-yourself-silly-and-buy-yourself-an-ipad Sunday we've failed to notice that the retailers have tricked us into getting worked into a frenzy. (OK, maybe I've allowed myself the tinniest of attacks on consumerism after all...).

What's the antidote to this mania of doing-things-ness? I believe that it's God's principle of Sabbath. The term Sabbath refers to the Jewish custom of stopping work - not just for the well-off but for the slaves as well - once every week (Exodus 20:8-11). In addition to this weekly Sabbath God ordained regular festivals throughout the year which would cause people to leave their agricultural work and travel to Jerusalem (Leviticus 23). The word 'Sabbath' comes originally from the Hebrew verb shabath, which means 'to stop', 'to cease', or 'to rest'. God instituted Stop-Days and Stop-Festivals to make sure that His people received rest. It's like that point in an exam when the examiner tells everyone to stop writing. Or like the klaxon that signals tools-down at the end of a working day (immortalised for me in The Simpsons titles sequence). 

Although it isn't overtly biblical, perhaps we should revert to making the Christmas period our national festival of rest. Where we forget buying things or organising things or going to work for a time and just stop. Perhaps we need to recapture the old sense of the 12 days of Christmas (and incorporate that into our employment law). Whatever we do, God knows that we all need a proper rest. He genuinely does - and that's as good a reason as any to make sure we get one.

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