The festive season always brings with it fresh questions, especially in a largely secular age, about whether a religious festival should be afforded protected status in terms of shopping laws.
Currently, large stores in England and Wales (in law, those over 280 square metres in size) cannot open on Christmas Day. Smaller convenience stores often do a brisk trade, providing those last-minute batteries for Christmas toys, or various items for the festive lunch.
Were regulations to be relaxed further as some would like, large stores would doubtless take advantage of another opportunity to appeal to the last-minute-gift-grab that goes on right up until Christmas Eve.
In that event, Christmas would quickly become just another shopping day and, for those perhaps unfortunate enough to work in retail, just another working day.
Surely, say advocates of 24/7-all-year selling, this one day should be seen, in commercial terms, as no different to any other in the calendar. Especially so when we consider how apparently few people will spend any time reflecting on the religious significance of what was once a “holy day”.
Why not, they say, allow shoppers to snap up bargains on Christmas Day in the same way they will do the next day, often with aggressive intent?
I was asked much this same question on the BBC Breakfast TV programme this morning. Commercial opportunities aside, there is also an important question of human values here.
We already have precious few opportunities to gather face-to-face with family and friends. In our highly mobile age, families are often spread far and wide and even our closest friendships are often mediated through digital gadgets.
We should treasure every opportunity we get to actually eyeball those close to us, to engage them in conversation, sharing experiences and building memories.
Even if meeting some members of our extended families doesn’t exactly fill us with Christmas joy, this may be the one day of the year when we have the chance to build empathy and perhaps come to a new understanding.
Further relaxing shopping regulations wouldn’t kill Christmas, but it would represent a great loss to families and friendships.
Surely, though, say the purveyors of “shop-till-you-drop”, denying retailers the right to conduct business-as-usual is a restriction of trade? There are profits to be made by hard-working store owners and savings to be had by keen shoppers. Why get in the way?
This is a utilitarian argument, which suggests that the only real value of the festive season is in its economic worth.
It is a seductive argument in a consumerist age. Yet leading ethicists are warning us of the danger of attaching price-tags to everything in life.
Michael Sandel and Deborah Satz, of Harvard and Stanford universities respectively, remind us that the true value of some of life’s most precious experiences and possessions can’t be measured in financial terms.
Once we reduce everything to pounds and pence, we encourage an economy that defines us rather than serving us. That kind of thinking is what led us to the Great Recession. We need to avoid it at all costs.
We need to stop thinking about certain days of the year in terms of sales or savings and see the other benefits they bring.
We should consider carefully what used to be called the “sacred” part of Christmas. The word doesn’t simply reflect its religious value – though this is central to the “why” of the celebration. The word “sacred” simply means “set apart”, or different from the rest.
Setting aside certain days that helps society to encourage reflection. These days provide breathing space, downtime when our minds can assimilate everything that’s been going on in our individual lives and relationships.
Psychologists talk about the fact that our thinking becomes ever more shallow if we’re constantly switched on and rushing about. There are clear signs that stress in the workplace is increasing today, partly because people can’t switch off out of hours.
Stress costs US business alone between $30 and $40 million per year in lost productivity. Yet its true impact, on human emotions and health or families and friendships will never be reflected in mere monetary metrics.
That’s why some of Europe’s largest companies are switching off individual work-based email accounts when their people leave the office each day. They want to save their team members from burnout – which is not only unhealthy but costly.
Even children are affected by the lack of reflection time. According to one UK study, 40 percent of children who own a smartphone are sleep deprived.
For the sake of our physical and cognitive welfare we need those days when we are not expected to be doing anything in particular; whether it’s working at the cash register or hunting for bargains in the high street.
Keeping Christmas Day set apart is an important cultural statement. Through it we collectively affirm our commitment to providing people with non-negotiable time for rejuvenation and renewal.
Relaxing shopping laws and practices on Christmas Day would not kill Christmas – its central values are too resilient to be so easily undone.
It would, however, represent a significant loss to the human experience, in terms of families, friendships and general wellbeing.
To watch Mal's BBC Breakfast interview on this, click here.