Operation Noah is determined to take Christmas back from the grip of advertising giants and rampant materialism. As part of its 'Reclaim Christmas' campaign, the organisation is challenging people to get back to basics and celebrate the birth of Christ in simple yet meaningful ways.
Christian Today spoke to Operation Noah’s Campaign Strategist Mark Dowd to find out more.
CT: What exactly is it that you want people to reclaim their Christmas from?
MD: If you compare the simplicity of the nativity story – which is about the humility and modest surroundings of a young child born in a stable – with the mad pressure to spend money which we now have, I think the focus is about reclaiming Christmas from the power of the advertising industry.
There is a potentially pernicious message that somehow you are incomplete and unfulfilled as a human being if you don’t have a checklist of certain goods available in your Christmas stocking either for your own personal possession or to give to other people. I just think that’s completely out of kilter with the spirit of the season.
It’s not really a question of saying that giving is wrong. Absolutely not. Presents are at the heart of the Christmas message. If you think of the visit of the three wise men, they brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. What’s interesting about the Christmas story is that they respond to their desire to go and visit the child of Jesus because of majesty and awe. They see a star shining. They don’t do it in response to great big bill boards on our high street saying spend, spend, spend!
So much of the pressure to consume and buy ends up having a lot of environmental consequences. Because of the huge amount of waste that we create – it’s something like eight London buses full of wrapping paper that we will throw out.
What we’ve been doing with the campaign is saying: don’t stop giving to people but is there any way you can do this by making presents yourself with friends and family and giving them away to people? You get more fun out of it through the creative process of doing things by yourself and there is also the personal touch of being able to say that this present was made for you with my own hands. It doesn’t have a great big ‘made in China’ sticker on it.
CT: Do you think as Christians we are also a bit guilty of Christmastime excess?
MD: Advent is a time of waiting. I remember several years ago the parish priest in the church I went to getting absolutely irate in the first week of Advent, saying we are not putting the baby Jesus in the crib on the 30th of November. We have to wait until Chirstmas Eve because we are waiting for Jesus and Jesus doesn’t come on the first week of Advent!
I think the Christian tradition of Advent is a really good counter-cultural witness to the society we live in because everyone lives in an ‘I want it now’ world. We have a very short attention span, we want things instantly, and the whole point of Advent is that you savour it and reflect on it and have anticipation.
John the Baptist wandering around preparing the way for the Lord wasn’t saying that it was going to happen in the next few seconds. He was saying the Kingdom of God is upon us but we have to wait and savour it, it’s coming.
I think if Christians can go back to the original roots of Advent, which was actually a penitential season in the church’s history, the vestments worn in church are purple which is what you wear in Lent. In other words, it is a time of reflection on our lives before God comes to be with us. And that is very easy to lose sight of when you are barging through the doors of Hamley’s toy store spending another £130 on all this stuff that people are screaming at you to buy.
CT: How do you think we got to this point as a society?
MD:I think a lot of it is the weakening position of the institutional churches in society, that their voices are less powerful. Rowan Williams has recorded an absolutely wonderful Advent message on the Church of England’s website. One hundred years ago or 50 years ago, the text of that is the kind of thing that would have been on the front page of the national newspapers, whereas now it is very much a sideline for those already in the know and isn’t an absolutely central part of our culture.
I think a lot of this is related to the erosion of the power of churches and faith and being replaced with what is crudely a very materialistic approach to happiness, which is basically the more you have the happier you will be. And of course we know that that is not true. All the analyses and think tanks and research shows that although the economic growth has gone up and up and up, the actual psychological and spiritual indicators on whether people are happy or not do not follow the same course.
A lot of this is about the enormous growth in the 20th century of an enormous machine called advertising. Even back in 1925 the American advertisers held a massive convention in Manhattan and they came up with one central idea, which is our job in the world is to recreate desire. In other words we have to tell people what they want and what’s good for them because once you can persuade people about that you can make money.
I think that’s in a sense where we’ve gone, in losing the heart. We should have built up more resistance and more awareness to the fact that we were being manipulated and told what to do. And I think as Christians we should be much more suspicious and independent in judgement about what we do.
CT: What do you think the church’s role is today?
MD: I think the church’s role is to find counter-cultural prophetic ways of challenging that. We launched Reclaim two weeks ago in Birmingham and we had a few events there. In one, the local bishop there and his staff encouraged the city to donate gifts and bring them into church. We get so much stuff at Christmas and half of the stuff we can’t find any use for and it just gathers dust on our bookshelves.
People brought in some really wonderful things. We had around 300 or 400 gifts – books, scents, soaps, CDs, and nearly all of them were extremely good quality. We went out and brought people into the cathedral where all the presents were laid out on the tables and we just said to people ‘happy Christmas, please have a present’. And they were like ‘what?! What’s the catch?! What do I have to pay?!’
Christmas is a time of giving and generosity but also these things were already out there. People weren’t spending more money so I guess it was like recycling.
What was really important about that was that out of the 300 or 400 people who came into the cathedral, about 80 per cent of them would never ever set foot in a church, I’m sure. So it’s evangelising.
There were some visiting Muslims from Egypt and we accosted them on the street and I sort of ushered them in and they said ‘but we are Muslims, we can’t go into the church’, and I said ‘you worship the prophet Jesus, don’t you?’, and they said ‘oh yes, of course’. So they went in and we just gave them these presents and they went away and one man was smiling saying this would never happen in Cairo. So it’s just little things but you can’t measure the extent to which those stories get replicated and shared with people.
I’d love it if 600 churches could imitate and do that next Christmas.
CT: What tips do you have for families wanting to celebrate a more conscientious Christmas this year?
MD: Well, first of all they can go to our website (www.operationnoah.org) and see a million things to do with the family with their own hands. One of the favourites is making fizzing bath bomb from bicarbonate of soda, citric acid and scents that are packed into little ice cube trays and frozen. The kids really like making them with their parents. And you can give some of those to your relatives.
For the BBC’s ‘Christmas Voices’ series, we interviewed a couple in Birmingham who were feeling the squeeze this year in terms of the credit crunch and they decided this year to make all their presents rather than buy them. They spent half as much on presents this year for Christmas but doubled the number of people they were able to give to.
They made chutneys from pears and apples from their trees. They made handicrafts with their children. They went out to charity shops and found nice things there. And it shows that you can give nice things to people without spending an absolute fortune.
CT: Sounds like getting back to basics?
MD: Yes. The other thing that’s really hard, the real test, is that it costs absolutely nothing to give people your time and attention. How many of us with sometimes quite difficult relationships with our families and friends just buy an expensive present, stick it in their ribs, and say happy Christmas and walk away thinking ‘phew, I’ve done ok now’. But there might be some big issues about the way we deal with those people that aren’t being addressed.
And over the period when the shops are closed and we aren’t running around, if you are with those people, just a simple question like ‘are you ok?’, ‘how are things?’. That’s really hard actually because you are frightened of the answers. But it doesn’t cost anything and it would be much better to build up relationships than getting stuffed with things.
CT: So you see Christmas as an opportunity to present a different side of the church?
MD: The thing is now that with the slight suspicion and wariness about faith and religion, it is really important that with every encounter we have we surprise people and give positive messages, we don’t wag fingers at them and make them feel guilty or judge them. We simply say here’s a different way of doing things and always with a smile on your face. I think that’s really important.