A few Decembers ago, I was driving along a narrow country road at sunset, singing along to the Christmas music on the radio, when one of my favorites came on: O Holy Night.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother
And in his name, all oppression shall cease.
I was struck by this line, not just for the usual reasons—this beautiful testimony of Jesus’ mission on earth, and marveling at the theology that gets broadcast this time of year and sung along to without most of us even paying attention to what we’re saying!
I was struck instead because of something I’d seen on TV earlier in the day—an inside look at the small Chinese city where 60 percent of our Christmas decorations are made. Yiwu is full of factories manufacturing felt Santa hats and stockings, glittery ornaments, and basically everything you find on a Hobby Lobby shelf from August to January. (I tried to find the video online and could not, though there are others about workers in Yiwu. This article from The Guardian tells the same story, with many of the same images I recall.)
The journalist asked a few people if they knew much about the holiday for which they were making all this stuff.
“I think it’s kind of like our New Year,” I remember one saying.
“Oh, what’s their religion called? Christ- Christianity?” another said.
What all these Santas, snowflakes, and red bows had to do with the holiday wasn’t discussed.
The part of the story that lodged itself in my mind, however, focused on the health hazard these workers face, particularly those whose job it is to coat styrofoam shapes in red powder, making flocked or glittery decorations. Their whole bodies get covered in the red powder. The man they interviewed wears a Santa hat not to be festive, but to keep his hair from turning red. Workers with this task go through numerous face masks every day to try to limit the amount of the powder inhaled.
In his name, all oppression shall cease?
The words of the song stood in such stark contrast to the harm being done for the sake of our holiday celebrations. In his name, workers’ health is being put at risk. In his name, toxic junk is being shipped around the world to supposedly help us celebrate the birth of one who came to help and heal.
I wondered about other ways that our Christmas celebrations might be perpetuating oppression instead of combating it.
I worry in general about the working conditions of laborers in southeast Asia, who make most of the goods we buy in the U.S. Low pay, long hours . . . and yet if we boycott their goods, will they lose what meager income they have? This is a question I struggle with. But when people suffer physical harm to enable our celebration, things are pretty clear. These factory workers may not know Santa from Jesus from Buddy the Elf, but when they find their skin irritated by the residual powder, when they suffer a chronic cough in July, when they develop lung cancer or any number of other diseases—all to meet the demand of Western people celebrating an at-least-nominally Christian holiday—this is oppression in the name of Jesus.
This is why, for me, Living Lighter is a faith-based conviction. Not so I can spend less money on stuff and give more to church and charity—no, it sometimes means spending more on fairly traded goods so that the people making what we buy have enough to live on. Rather, it is because
the things we buy have an impact on real people, all around the world: the people who are paid to make them, the people who are affected by the materials used to make them, the people affected by what happens to our stuff once we’re done with it.
What and how we buy matters. All year long. But at Christmas especially, when so much of what we buy is in service of celebrating one who came to end injustice and oppression, we can deck our halls and stuff our stockings making choices in the hope that all oppression in his name would cease.