Thirteen years ago today the Spice Girls were sitting on top of the music charts with their third successive Christmas number one, ‘Goodbye’ and Manchester United were on their way to an unprecedented treble. There was no financial crisis, more people had jobs and pension funds were comparatively healthy.
Thirteen years ago today on Wednesday 23 December 1998, Bob Holman had an article published on the BBC News website. His comment on affluence and the extravagance of a commercialised Christmas is even more relevant today and just as thought provoking as it was thirteen years ago. I’ve reproduced it here in full:
Comfort in a cold climate
Bob Holman brings Christmas cheer to harsh surroundings
BBC News Online is presenting a series of personal viewpoints on Christmas from Christians from all walks of life. Bob Holman, a voluntary neighbourhood worker on the Easterhouse council estate in Glasgow, here explains how the focus of his Christmas is bringing seasonal cheer to a deprived area.
In Britain today, Christmas has been hijacked by affluence. But I doubt that the carpenter from Nazareth would be comfortable in such an atmosphere of extravagance.
Instead he would probably feel more at home with me at Easterhouse, in a dingy hall where those who can’t afford expensive presents are glad just to meet and share fellowship at this time of year.
Easterhouse is probably the largest council schemes in Britain and houses some of the UK’s most underprivileged families. Over 80% of its pupils receive a grant which is an indicator that they come from homes with very low incomes.
Nonetheless, Christmas is a special and joyful time for residents – many of whom are special in their own right.
I moved to Easterhouse 12 years ago with my wife Annette. We soon became involved in the Christmas celebrations when Salvation Army leader Captain Eric Buchanan – having learnt about my former aid work on a council estate in Bath – drew me into the first of many Sally Christmases.
Christmas in Easterhouse starts on the Sunday before with a carol service. It ends on Christmas day with lunch and a party for families who do not have the money for turkey and trimmings.
At the carol service, a packed hall enjoy the women’s choir, watch the nativity play acted by children dressed in towels and blankets and listen to the army leader’s humorous address.
One year, the Captain Buchanan was energetically leading a carol when he suddenly stopped and walked out. After a puzzled silence, Annette initiated “choose your own carol” to fill the gap.
It turned out that the captain had seen a needy person enter through the back door and that person had instantly become more important than anything else.
At the Christmas Day party, I have the hopeless task of organising the games for excited children – and parents – until rescued by the arrival of Santa Claus. The hall is dingy and its windows covered with wire protection but it becomes a place of laughter.
Faith in the poor
One regular at the party used to be Erica and her family. Abused as a child and then a teenage prostitute, her life was changed at the Salvation Army.
I remember calling on Erica one Sunday afternoon when the family had just 15p in the world. The children wanted it for sweets but Erica refused. That evening at the Salvation Army she put it in the collection.
In a book written largely by Easterhouse residents called Faith in the Poor, Erica describes how she made a stable life for herself and the importance of the Easterhouse Christmas.
She wrote: “Christmas Day at the Sally was great. I was in the women’s choir which Annette led. I never missed a Sunday service and the Captain and Mrs. Buchanan were a part of our life.”
As we celebrate Christmas 2011, we must not forget the many individuals, families, and communities like Easterhouse, up and down the country who continue to suffer from both the effects of recession – poverty, joblessness and hopelessness, and from a lack of the gospel story – forgiveness, dignity and hope. What should we do as we move into 2012?