Re-thinking Boxing Day in the foodbank society

By Simon Barrow
December 26, 2014

Due not least to the ubiquity of 'Downton Abbey' on television this Christmas (no, I don't, since you ask) many more people will be aware – if they weren't already – of the background to Boxing Day (26 December).

In the colonial era it emerged as a day when servants and tradespeople would receive gifts, known as a 'Christmas box', from their bosses or employers. It gained impetus in the United Kingdom, Barbados, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and a number of other former British colonies.

The idea of largesse from those with wealth towards those who don't is deeply ingrained in aspects of British (particularly English) culture. Better than mean-spiritedness, to be sure, but still, in its Boxing Day manifestation, a charitable bauble on the unspoken reality of huge inequality and class divisions.

In post-colonial South Africa the decision was made that Boxing Day should be renamed 'Day of Goodwill' in 1994. Perhaps it is time to do something similar here?

In that spirit, one poster on a political site on Facebook today suggested that it might be appropriate on Boxing Day to reinvent the tradition by donating non-perishables to a local foodbank or charity. "Bring back one Christmas tradition that is badly needed in the modern austerity age," he declared.

A lively discussion ensued, in which the usual tensions between charity (understood as voluntary giving by those who have spare resources) and justice (establishing structures of society that eliminate hunger and poverty) were rehearsed.

It has always struck me as sad that charity (rightly understood as active personal love) and justice (active corporate love) are so often seen as mutually exclusive, and the charitable instinct individualised and depoliticised.

No-one should be dependent on 'hand-outs', but the surplus of generosity over whatever social arrangements for fairness have been established is never to be spurned. Indeed real love would surely always wish to do more than provide the bare bones of equalisation?

Foodbanks are a shameful indictment of an an unequal society where austerity for many is at the expense of bailouts for the few. We should never lose sight of that, or of the fact that what is required is the righting of a wrong. "Charity is no substitute for justice denied", St Augustine reminds Christians and others.

But while we campaign for justice, those who suffer from its denial should be housed, clothed, fed and educated. Voluntary effort to that end, and a genuine spirit of goodwill, should not be seen or used as an excuse for allowing the situation of hunger in a wealthy society (or any society) to continue, but as a spur to redressing the situation structurally. The Trussell Trust, which has conservative rather than radical Christian origins, has been willing to endure the wrath of Iain Duncan Smith and others in making that point.

As End Hunger Fast puts it: No one should go hungry in Britain. More and more people are just one unexpected bill away from facing bare cupboards. This is a national and moral crisis and government must act to protect the hundreds of thousands going hungry in Britain.

Together we need to ensure: that the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger in Britain; that work pays enough for working people to properly provide for their families; and that food markets function, promoting long term sustainable and healthy diets with no one profiteering off hunger in this country.

Meanwhile, a Goodwill Day on 26 December each year might make us think about how personal generosity and the building of a truly generous society requires more than the donation of surplus by the few to the many, but a redistribution of resources matched by a reorientation of the human heart.

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© Simon Barrow is co director of Ekklesia

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