fourteen

A ring of bells is a good thing to have on an Advent calendar. These ones, which now hang in the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, have an interesting history, albeit one with a rather un-Christmassy ending.

As most people know, Sheffield has long and proud associations with metal work, especially steel. These bells – made in 1886 for Bassaleg Parish Church in south Wales – are among more than 7,000 that were produced out of cast steel by the Sheffield-based company Naylor Vickers between 1855 and 1890. They were popular as a stopgap for parishes who were saving up until they could splash out on bronze, which was considered superior. Today only 15 sets of cast steel bells survive.

The technique Naylor Vickers used depends on moulds that withstand very high temperatures of production. After bell making ceased, this method of producing a smooth and finely finished casting was adapted by Vickers for making bombs.

 

thirteen

So today I have a Christmas card dilemma.

Last year, we decided to send ‘real’ cards only to friends and relations who are averse to modern technology. Everyone else got a cheery email and a pdf of our annual Christmas letter. We saved a lot of money on cards and stamps and used most of it to twin our toilet. Toilet Twinning is a most excellent charity that is tackling the shocking fact that forty per cent of people in the world do not have access to a safe, clean and hygienic place to go to the loo. (Just think about that. I have been at home, at university and at work today and have used at least five different loos, all of which were regularly cleaned and came with handbasins as standard.)

In deciding to make electronic contact at Christmas, we also felt we were making a very small contribution to cutting back on the amount of paper and card that is consumed at this time of year.

The problem was that the majority of people we contacted this way did not respond. It was as if our failure to send a card meant that we were deleted from their Christmas lists. Like a lot of people who are past the first flush (whoops, no pun intended) of youth, we do have quite a few friendships which rely on Christmas cards to keep them alive. I know that might sound as if they are not important, but actually they represent relationships that we don’t want to abandon. They were born out of significant shared experiences and while they may have abated since we had our children or moved ‘up north’, they could easily revert to being more active as circumstances change.

So yesterday I went out and bought several boxes of cards from the local Oxfam shop and tomorrow I will go and spend a fair bit on stamps at the Post Office and we will probably stay up far too late writing these cards in order to catch the last date for second class post on Saturday.

It is so difficult to cut back on consumption at this time of year and not appear Scrooge-like. I would be interested to hear what other people do. Were we being mean when we sent the emails and pdfs? Is the consumption of paper offset by the benefits of using charity cards? Are Christmas cards in fact a dying tradition? If you regularly communicate with distant friends via Facebook or Skype, etc,  is there even any point in them any more?

eleven

NATIVITY

The moon is born

and a child is born,

lying among white clothes

as the moon among clouds.

They both shine, but

the light from the one

is abroad in the universe

as among broken glass.

R.S. Thomas

From Experimenting with an Amen (1986). Also appears in Thomas’ Selected Poems.

Photo by Shaun>D. Used under creative commons licence.

nine

I never knew some churches have a tradition of lighting a pink candle on the third Sunday in Advent. Apparently this is because the pink stands for joy and the third Sunday is known as ‘Gaudete (rejoice) Sunday’.

Hurrah – I really like pink and it is so nice to see it being used for something other than what the Pinkstinks campaign so aptly labels ‘sexualised, colour-coded, passive-princess crap’.

I found out about pink candles from this rather jolly film.

Picture by Jonathunder. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence

eight

A sheep is a good thing to have on an Advent calendar but the weather has been far too horrible for me to go out and get a picture of one. So hurrah for these badges from Felicity Ford’s Etsy shop – they arrived today, beautifully presented with this lovely sheep stamp.

Felicity Ford wrote a really thought-provoking blog post yesterday about the relationship between wool and time. As I admired my new badges and thought about how I would write about them, I suddenly realised that her post that had already raised so many issues was particularly relevant to the Advent season.

Felix writes: ‘Wool is produced through the slow activity of grazing, and the alchemy by which grass is turned over weeks and months into the fleece of the sheep

You can’t hurry wool.’

She then raises some searching questions about how, in that case, it is possible for chain stores to sell wool items at knock-down prices.

‘I went to the High Street last weekend and I saw 3 for 2 offers on knitwear in a well-known retail outfit, and I realised that – however much their storefront alludes to ancient knitting traditions – their 3 for 2 offer markedly does not. For … sheep cannot be fed on a 3 for 2 basis; … wool cannot be baled on a 3 for 2 basis; … in the UK at least it is not possible for a scarf to be produced as part of a BOGOF deal unless you are hurrying wool to the shelves. And what do we know about wool? That you can’t hurry wool.’

So the high street tells us a lie and the lie is that you can have wool cheaply and you can have it when you want it. And then it presents the lie in cheerful colours scattered with words like ‘joy’ and ‘gift’ (see Felix’s photos for the proof) – and therein is another lie. Which is that if you acquire this discount wool, you will be full of joy and you will be able to spread joy and you will have a gift in your hands, either for yourself (presumably because you’re worth it) or  – marvellously – for somebody else. What’s not to like?

Well, the fact that all this is nonsense. There are a variety of ways to get real wool from real sheep onto the shelves at this price, as Felix points out. Either someone has not been paid at all, or everyone involved in the slow process of producing wool has been paid less than the minimum wage, or the garments on display don’t actually contain much real wool.

Where is the ‘joy’ in this? Who wants a ‘gift’ for themselves or for others that is wrapped up in a tissue of lies and injustice?

The word ‘advent’ means ‘coming’. It is a season in which Christians wait expectantly for the birth of Jesus.

You can’t hurry a baby.

Yet somehow over the years this once holy time of waiting and preparation has morphed into a season of rush and over-consumption. And the more we accumulate and the faster we want it, so the more the injustices pile up

And in the run-up to Christmas, these injustices increase in the name of the one who said:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Luke 4: 18-19

I have been a Christian for quite a few years and I have been slow to grasp this, but if I could wish for one thing right now it would be that more people both inside and outside the Church could really understand that the Bible reveals a God who gets angry when farmers are forced to sell fleeces at rock-bottom prices so that high street stores can provide consumers with cheap products to give as gifts.

Especially, I would dare to suggest, at Christmas.