At 4pm on the 19th of December, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that London and the Southwest of the UK would be put under a Tier 4 lockdown effective at midnight, shuttering all non-essential shops for the next two weeks. The British Retail Consortium estimated the lockdown would cost high street stores £2 bn.
As I headed out for the last eight shopping hours of 2020, I walked through department stores piled high with stock received earlier that day. With so many of the items winter- and Christmas-specific, I hoped they could be sold online, or put back on racks in January or Q4 2021. However, the only ghost of Christmas’ future I could see for them was the landfill or furnace. In 2018, Burberry burned £28.6 million worth of unsold clothes, accessories, and perfume to avoid their goods being sold at a discount which would thereby devalue their luxury brand. I imagined all the clothes in Southampton and Dover warehouses that hadn’t even made it onto shelves that will end up discarded, contributing to the 20% of industrial water pollution that is caused by the textile industry.
While I grieve for the absolute lack of stewardship for the environment—and lack of regard for the wellbeing of the people who labor to make us our clothes—I was grateful to have had the chance to purchase some last-minute Christmas gifts. In my family, the journey from childhood to adulthood is signalled when toys are dropped from the Christmas wish-list and replaced by shirts, trousers, and if you’re really mature, socks.
Ever since Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves, clothes have been something we need. Nehemiah praises God for his provision for the Israelites in the wilderness, when “their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen” (Nehemiah 9:21). Clothes are a powerful means of identity: Jacob tricks his father into thinking he is Esau by wearing Esau’s coat, and therefore wins the birthright. And the daughters of kings are often described as dressed in fine purple and gold, symbolising the beautification of Israel and God’s bounteous provision.
However, clothes can also cause us unnecessary worry. Jesus speaks to a multitude in Luke 12, “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these” (Luke 12:27). Increasing awareness that environmental damage is most heavily shouldered by the Global South and Black, Brown, indigenous and migrant communities within the United States leads us to a deep reckoning with the forces of the modern textile industry, and perhaps capitalism as a whole, that incentivize us to exploit rather than care for Creation. Perhaps I could even go so far as to say that clothing is a visible marking of sin. It seems impossible to justify taking advantage of our global neighbours just to buy our immediate loved ones Christmas gifts at a discount.
Gift-giving is perhaps the most misunderstood of the five love languages, which also include words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, and physical touch. Speaking to a friend of mine recently, she said that giving someone a gift means that they were present with you even when you were not physically together. Her friend loves to give her a packet of Percy Pig sweets whenever they meet together, and she is deeply moved that her friend works hours at a menial supermarket job just so she can give her something with no practical use besides pleasure.
While the moral of The Grinch may be that Christmas is about people not gifts, I would say that gifts are a way we can signify love for one another. The Alpha and Omega of the universe, our God of love, becomes visible to us through signs. God shows Godself giving signs of the burning bush, the bread and wine in the Last Supper, or Christ come down. Eastern Orthodox scholar Vladimir Lossky writes that just as the sun is fully present in each of its rays, “[God] is wholly present in each ray of His divinity.” Signs are a showing of the love we could not comprehend all at once.
For many of us, it can be difficult to receive if we immediately feel the pressure of repaying. I think about the final scene of the 1946 classic Christmas film, It’s a Wonderful Life, when hordes of money are poured on the table. Who can say if the outpouring was worthy enough to recompense George Bailey for his lifetime of service? Or, who can say if one man’s work can be monetised into an entire town’s savings? To consider how we can remove our indebtedness to others is an insult to the abundant gifts we have been given. The money in It’s a Wonderful Life is not a ransom but a sign of recognition and gratitude for Bailey’s gifts that the townspeople will never be able to adequately repay. How could we ever begin to repay our parents, siblings or friends for the love they have shown us? It makes even less sense to talk of repaying God.
I think of the lavish excesses that love truly delights in. Mary Magdalene pours her jar of nard over Jesus’ feet without measure or care; Jesus gives himself on the cross over and over until the end. So as we prepare to lavishly pour out on our loved ones this Christmas, may we not equate excess with waste and a lack of regard for the common love that binds us all.
There is a growing movement to connect us to the makers of our clothes. Small businesses have greater supply chain transparency and also invest in their communities. Shopping local minimises transport-caused environmental damage. Underwear and bedding company Bedstraw & Madder uses natural plant dyes that don’t poison the water supply around factories. Companies can pay living wages, cut commute times for their workers, and invest in education for their employees’ children. Brands can upcycle, or like clothing company One, take their own clothes back to be recycled once customers are done with them. Sustainable practices allow us to be purposeful in giving beautiful, well-made, and ethical gifts. Akojo Market, for example, provides an interface for artisans across Africa to sell their products, giving designers the opportunity to negotiate fair prices and handcraft personalised items for customers around the world. On social media, the zero-waste movement urged people to give digital courses, exercise classes, fresh produce subscriptions, concert tickets, and other experiences as meaningful gifts that don’t cost the earth. We can still be lavish in our gift-giving, but I pray that we may also be excessively generous in the care we grant to our neighbors around the world.
One of the first occupations to be blessed in the Old Testament is craftsmen: in Exodus 31, the Lord tells Moses, “I have filled [Bezalel] with the Spirit of God, with understanding, with knowledge, and with all kinds of skills to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver, and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.” God tells Bezalel to fashion the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of Testimony, the altar, and the woven garments of the priests. Chapter 28 goes into exquisite detail of how Bezalel is to make the priestly garments—the materials, the colours, how the clothes will be tied or fastened, and how to set the precious stones and engravings. The priestly robe is to have pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn alternating sewn on the hem.
The functional purpose of clothes is tied up in their beauty and craftsmanship. This Christmas let us give gifts to the artisans who make gift-giving possible. In the face of the evil and inertia of the textile industry, “rend your heart, not your garments” (Joel 2:13) and maybe then we can redeem clothes from the legacy of sin that first made them necessary.
Angela Eichhorst ’22 is a Comparative Religion concentrator in Dunster House. She is currently studying abroad at Regent’s Park College, Cambridge