Have you noticed how everyone is talking about “austerity” this festive season? Celebrities on Twitter, on TV, journalists in the papers are talking about their “back to basics” Christmas plans – which a cynic may say is more about nostalgia and guilt than genuine need. When multimillionaire celebrities talk about “cutting back”, I find myself feeling less generous than I should be at this time of year.
You see, I have known, and still know, people for whom austerity is not a lifestyle choice, but an absolute non-negotiable necessity. It is not “choosing brown paper with red ribbons” or “Tesco mince pies rather than Waitrose brandy butter”. It is not a choice but rather a means of survival.
Let me illustrate – one of my dear friends in South Africa recalled to me the Christmases of her childhood. We were in our early twenties at the time and I was just starting to realize how privileged I really was. She grew up in a loving yet poor family in a township, her family was close-knit but had little money. At Christmas there were no individual presents, not even as a young child. Instead, every year as Christmas approached, her Dad was given a packet of biscuits at work and this was the family’s (joint) Christmas present – a packet of biscuits shared amongst them. When she told me this, I struggled to hold back the tears. I had never before had to imagine a Christmas without all the trimmings – turkey, presents, crackers, cheese, stockings and so on. None of that –just a shared packet of biscuits. That is true austerity.
Poverty is not a glamorous thing. Sometimes I think we can be guilty of romanticising it. Poverty – not having enough to pay the bills, to buy enough food, to buy your child even one Christmas present – is ugly, separating the haves from the have-nots, marginalising people and creating feelings of inadequacy and “difference”. True austerity is a non-negotiable side effect of poverty, not a glamorous lifestyle choice.
Someone else was recently telling me how their parents could never afford to buy them what they asked for at Christmas – instead they always got the fake version of the real thing. Okay, it’s not the same as a packet of biscuits but it can still generate feelings of being second best, different from all your friends at school.
Fake austerity makes me angry. don’t like seeing the wealthy pretend to identify with the poor, when many have no idea what it really means to not have enough, to lie awake at night worrying about money – week in, week out, year in, year out. When there isn’t enough money to pay the bills, buy your child a new, much-needed coat or heat your home at all, the last thing you want to hear is that the mega-rich are now “austere” too. I am all for cutting back, spending less so that you can give more away, and reaching out to those in true need this Christmas.
But, if we are fortunate enough to be able to live without worrying about money, let’s also be truly grateful for that at this time of year. After all, it is about a baby born to parents too poor to find an inn, who put their newborn in the trough usually inhabited by animal food. It is about a God who became poor, not a God who glamorises poverty.