Thursday, 22 December 2011


By Aurora @ Island Dreaming

Here in the northern hemisphere the winter solstice is upon us. After today, the sun begins its return to our part of the world. Most of the religious traditions and festivals that are celebrated around this time celebrate a light returning in the midst of barren darkness. In the depths of winter, there is nothing so welcome; and for many people, this has been a winter (and a year) of extraordinary darkness.

This next bit might sound like a certain Monty Python sketch, bear with me, but I had a relatively impoverished childhood compared with most of my peers. I wore secondhand clothes, got secondhand Christmas presents, ate the same few frugal meal variations everyday. We always seemed to be one misstep away from disaster at any given moment. We lived in a house that was in urgent need of renovation, with no space heating and which regularly hosted an open house for any passing north sea gale. I was happy enough and it stood me in good stead - my bent towards simple living is probably a yearning to go back to the uncomplicated nature of this time.

We didn't have a TV for many years as the license fee was an expensive annual cost that couldn't be justified. I didn't particularly suffer in myself because of this - after all, we had an excellent library, a beautiful old record player and vinyl collection that I still miss dearly and a charity shop jigsaw  puzzle habit that bordered on addiction. It did mark me out as odd from my classmates however, as all they seemed to talk about was whatever had been on TV the night before. Soaps and cartoons were a conversational currency that I didn't have access to and it was isolating.

When a close family friend turned up on our doorstep one Christmas Eve bearing a Christmas card and a tin of biscuits, I was delighted. They were 'posh biscuits' from one of our more upmarket food retailers. A little luxury. My Christmas was made, what a lovely thought. Then we opened the card, and it was clear there was more to it than a tin of biscuits. A TV license stamp book full of stamps (not an inconsiderable amount of money) ready to be traded in for a TV license. Saved up over months, bit by bit, because someone thought that they could make our Christmas. The actual license was the least of it - the sentiments expressed by such a generous act to this day fill me with warmth and joy.

For all of our anti-consumption  rhetoric, money can buy happiness sometimes. It can take care of those most basic needs that are the foundation of everything that comes after. Sometimes it can be used to express our love and appreciation. But that link between the gift and the sentiment is too often broken or clouded. Our annual Christmas consumption fests are often driven by guilt - where gifts and money stand in for time together and caring, or to make up for our perceived social inadequacies. Often gifts are merely given because of social pressures and 'good manners' - you simply have to buy gifts for certain people, it is the done thing.

Those social pressures are hard to overcome; and at this time of year, by all means do what you have to do to make your holidays run smoothly. But in the midst of it all, perhaps find one place where you can put a little time and money and make a huge difference. It will make you feel good (the least of reasons to do it) and you might genuinely make someone's Christmas. Be creative. If you can make a huge financial gesture, by all means do it if it is well placed. But if you can babysit someone's children for a few hours so that they can do their shop in peace, then throw your all into it; if you can volunteer at a homeless shelter for a few hours, if you can donate a few tins of 'posh biscuits' to your local food bank, if you can buy someone who would not expect it from you a food hamper, or something they really really need but cannot afford, put your money there. Help someone weatherize their house. Buy someone a patio garden kit. Reestablish that vital link between gift giving and filling genuine needs and inspiring warmth and good cheer.

Now is the darkest time of the year in these parts. Shine your light wherever you can. Happy holidays.