Christmas charity: should we be cynical?

Credit: Flickr - Asda donation point

Credit: Flickr – Asda donation point

Thomas McDonald

We must cast our minds back quite some time should we wish to understand where the modern, cynically marketed, trend of Christmas charity comes from. In the first sense, it is symptomatic of the seasonal climate of a historically Christian continent; it is at once associative and experiential. The majority of Europe becomes cold and unforgiving in the winter and those existing in poverty, as most have for the best part of its history, have it particularly hard around the time of Christ’s nativity. This is a fact constantly reinforced by culture, and is perhaps most instantly associated with the work of Charles Dickens and the stark exposition of urban poverty that his Victorian age afforded him. Those wretched souls lacking the warmth of the hearth and the cruel, parsimonious rich famously come together at the festive season in Dickens’ most famous short story, ‘A Christmas Carol.’

Charity was a rather unimpeachable thing in Dickens’ day and this is why Scrooge’s overnight change of heart affords him that famous redemption. The suffering of Bob Cratchett’s family and the pitiable Tiny Tim are presented are admonitions against personal selfishness alone and should Scrooge wish to make amends he and his like should simply become kinder. Whilst this is a moral of merit in the personal sphere, and although Dickens was sincerely horrified by Victorian poverty, this kind of attitude simply does not do; those who seriously wish to improve the lot of the disadvantaged haven’t found a use for sentimental charity for some time.

The Prime Minister who perhaps did more than any other in stopping the poor dying from senseless neglect was Clement Attlee, the instigator of the National Health Service, the one legacy of British Socialism that even Thatcher didn’t dare assault (and that new UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall, would apparently like to). Attlee famously called charity a “cold, grey loveless thing” and considered rights established by law to be “less galling” than the indignity of the rich dolling out kindness on a whim. And yet, as the Christmas season rolls around again, we can expect the familiar flood of sentimental (not to say mawkish) appeals to festive good-will, often with an ulterior commercial agenda (why hello, Sainsbury’s) and the implication that this obligation ends on New Year’s Eve.

Now, a distinction here should probably be drawn between Christmas charities and the general atmosphere of Christmas Charity. This season, as pubs up and down the country are populated by bucket shakers clad in garish jumpers or Catholic children leave presents bound for Africa on the altar, venerable traditions of relief continue as they do every year, happily accepted. It’s a plaster, not a cure. But who can go around, in all good conscience, ripping off plasters? What will go on frustratingly unchecked, however, is the kind of dispensation of public opinion which allows perennial irritant James Corden to have everyone, quite literally, dancing to Sainsbury’s tune.

This year, the supermarket giant have probably bettered the previously untouchable John Lewis in producing a musical Christmas ad that draws on Christmas charity in a way that subordinates it to a tiny logo, and about a second of screen time at the merciful close of proceedings. I can’t actually remember what charity Sainsbury’s were promoting and that, I should think, goes someway to proving my point. The charities may be subsumed by the brand, but the general atmosphere of charity persists. Sainsbury’s musical effort is titled, tellingly, ‘The Greatest Gift’, and lures the customers in with that intimation of Christmas generosity.

But once January (a colder and harsher month) begins, any poverty stricken, homeless or sick soul standing to benefit from all this goodwill is left out in the cold. The continuing good work of charities who at least persist beyond this designated season-of-giving, throws light on the crassness of those who seek to profit from it. Attlee was emphatically correct to say charity amounts to little in the way of helping the poor; and thanks to the long persisting notion of specifically Christmas charity, we now deal with a commercial pestering that amounts to even less. Unless, that is, one counts my dashed hopes that the Americans had taken James Corden off our hands for good.


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