x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

There may be more to Christmas than stuffing your face

The fact is that for most developed countries, the birth of Christ has become a crucial component in the national economy.

During Christmas time in the UK, 'tis the season when matters temporal briefly give way to the spiritual. For a few precious days we are encouraged to stop and think about the things that really matter in life. Like stuffing our faces and getting a new sofa for instance.

The Christian message may be one of love, forgiveness and care for your fellow traveller on life's rocky pathway, but to judge by the adverts on British television, it would appear that the most direct method of gaining entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven is to eat so much and exercise so little that you suffer a heart attack.

The extent to which commercial interests have hijacked the true message of the Nativity was graphically demonstrated to me during one TV advert break last week.

The first commercial, which is being endlessly repeated, was from a leading food retailer. Supposedly filmed around the festive dining table of one of Britain's leading TV celebrities - let's call her Belinda - we find her surrounded not only by friends and family but, more importantly, enough seasonal foodstuffs to feed a small African nation for a fortnight.

As the camera pans lasciviously back and forth across the groaning table, Belinda gives us a running commentary. "For Uncle Henry, our special haddock roulade," she coos, as the Uncle Henry in question scoops great forkfuls of creamy fish into his open mouth. Then we track along the table to Cousin John, tucking into what appeared to be an entire chicken ("Complete with our special sage and honey glazed dressing," says Belinda); and then to her nieces, a trio of grinning teenagers gorging themselves with "chocolate and treacle pudding with cream-enriched custard and honeycomb wafers".

I happen to know the celebrity in question - "Belinda" - in real life, and to my certain knowledge she has neither an Uncle Henry, a Cousin John nor a trio of giggling nieces. But no matter. The inference was obvious - if we only cram the retailer's products down our gullets, all would be right in the world.

The next advert, from a leading furniture maker, offered a range of sumptuous recliners and luxurious settees in which to collapse once we could no longer support our stomachs. Both the prices and the terms were exceedingly generous - "easy instalments", "hire purchase", "nothing to pay for six months".Why, we won't even notice the money had disappeared from our bank balance.

The third and final commercial, however, was an appeal from a leading international charity to aid the plight of starving people in Africa. It shone an unbearably stark light on the two preceding adverts.

In an instant, we switched from images of stupendous gluttony to ones of deprivation and unimaginable suffering - children with distended stomachs, hollow-eyed stares, and tiny babies quietly dying in front of their grieving mothers for want of a bowl of rice. Indeed, many of the infants weighed a good deal less than some of the puddings on Belinda's dining table.

In truth it made uneasy viewing, or it would have if I hadn't switched it off. After all, I didn't want my evening ruined.

Nonetheless the uneasy juxtaposition of the commercials stayed with me long after the screen went dark. The fact is that for most developed countries, the birth of Christ has become a crucial component in the national economy. If everyone who normally spends money on superfluous food, unwanted toys and pointless gifts spent it instead on aid for the developing world, national economies would collapse within months.

And of course, this madness doesn't stop there. Come the January sales, more money will be spent on exercise machines and subscriptions to health clubs in a vain effort to shed those unwanted pounds which we wouldn't have gained anyway if only we'd eaten half as much and given the rest to those in need.

Still, having sent a cheque for £50 (Dh284) to a leading charity to assuage my guilt, I was able to continue with my festive preparations unfettered by any further twinges of conscience. This included visiting a local bookshop to purchase a copy of the Holy Bible for a friend of mine who has a strong religious faith.

"Sorry sir," replied the hapless assistant when I made my request. "We don't have any copies just now. At this time of year we tend to only stock Christmas books."


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London