'Stressmas' rams home key themes

There's a strange timeliness to the release of the findings of the Productivity Commission's Housing Affordability Report, released late last week.

The draft report states that "the aspiration of home ownership is now beyond the reach of increasing numbers of New Zealanders". Hardly surprisingly, the report notes that housing affordability issues are the most acute for low-income households, particularly for those who are younger, single or belong to an ethnic group other than New Zealand European.

According to the report, over the course of the 2000s' housing boom, real house prices increased by between 70 and 240 per cent across different regions.

The number of households renting with at least one member in paid employment, increased by 150 per cent between 2001 and 2006.

Construction costs increased by 30 per cent in real terms in the nine years to 2011. The report says that more new and affordable houses must be built.

Two thousand years ago, according to one of the great narratives of the Christian tradition, a pregnant woman and her carpenter husband could not find adequate or affordable lodging, and the woman had to give birth in a manger.

Two thousand or so years later, the manger of Bethlehem has morphed into the garage in South Auckland, shared by far too many people; or the cold, damp flat; or the inadequately insulated house, or a van with a mattress in the back, where a young couple attended to their premature twins, because it was warmer than their rented accommodation.

Adequate, warm housing is essential to good health and wellbeing and there is extensive research in New Zealand on the impact of poor housing on health.

One of New Zealand's leading researchers on inequality in health and housing, Philippa Howden-Chapman, points out that the top 10 per cent of households in New Zealand own 500 times more than the bottom 10 per cent, with predominantly Pakeha owning this wealth.

In an address to a national nursing conference in August, she pointed out that the lowest income families spend about 13 per cent of their income on heating, while the wealthiest only about 2 per cent. Around 1600 extra people die in winter than in summer, due to poor housing and a lack of heating.

In her studies on poor housing, Ms Howden-Chapman showed how mould grew better in damp air; that living in cold houses stressed the immune system; and that when only one room in a house was heated, people crowded together, thus distributing infection more quickly.

A housing, insulation and health study, involving 1400 households from seven regions, showed dramatic health improvements brought about by interventions such as replacing inefficient electric heaters and unflued gas heaters with heat pumps, wood pellet burners and flued gas heaters. These positive effects were more marked for low-income families.

The housing report and Ms Howden-Chapman's research results make interesting reading, as we ponder the meaning of the manger.

Richmond Mall – the centre of it all. Well, in the weekend before Christmas it was certainly the centre of a great deal – headache-inducing noise, temper tantrums, screaming toddlers, frustrated families, drifting dads, swarming shoppers, rampant consumerism, preening teens, exhausted shop assistants, crowded food courts, soul-less decorations, bad Christmas carols.

But to my eyes and ears, in my brief, forced foray into the maul (as one friend describes it), it was the centre of precious little of the true spirit of Christmas – peace and goodwill on earth.

Seemingly, shopping is the new form of worship, the mall the new cathedral and Santa the new messiah.

In our relentlessly secular society, the "celebration" of Christmas has become almost totally divorced from its original meaning.

The tradition of gift giving has been almost totally swallowed up in a mania of purchasing, whereby those of us who already have too much, get too much, most of which we don't need – a most perverse response to the true message of Christmas.

As one shop assistant said as I browsed in a shop full of beautiful stuff: "You didn't realise there were so many things you didn't need, did you? Well, our shop is full of such things."

Including an "easy pineapple slicer, as seen on TV". I don't know how I've lived thus far without one.

But, dear readers, I don't want to seem too Scrooge-like in my response to the festive season. I seem to have successfully divorced myself from most of the madness and mayhem of Stressmas as I've heard it described, and am trying to concentrate on what is truly lovely about this time of year.

The return of wandering ones has a particular poignancy; the pre-Christmas gatherings of family and friends renew a sense of kinship and community; the coming together of families and friends around a festive table revives a sense of continuity and gratitude; the air of winding down in the workplace (except for those in retail, or course); the anticipation of a break from the routine of work; the promise of long, hot summer days; reflection on the year past, hopefully providing insights for the year ahead; and for those of Christian persuasion, there is a sense of spiritual renewal and rebirth.

So whatever the season means to you, may it be one of rest and renewal and particular blessings to those whose lives have been deeply disrupted by the deluge that hit our region last week.

May the help you receive from authorities, family, friends and strangers renew your sense of the essential meaning of this season.