The Place where Christmas is at



Due to a variety of circumstances, in mid-November this year, I realised that I would be spending Christmas alone. The prospect did not particularly concern me but I was aware that I found myself with a choice. I could take the predictable and somewhat appealing option of maximum indulgence, starring the compelling cast of my sofa, numerous DVDs and a range of delectable consumables. However, as tempting as that prospect appeared, after what has been an emotionally turbulent year, it carried a hollow quality which I found difficult to reason away.

For some time, I have vaguely entertained the idea of volunteering for a charitable organisation on Christmas Day. Giving my time and efforts to others less fortunate than me and achieving that warm sense of fulfilment which can only be derived from altruism had an obvious appeal. Such ideas were usually dissolved under the weight of yuletide convention, such as family obligation and the desire to hibernate in the much anticipated hiatus from the routine of life. This year, these considerations were not the issue, so for a time, I allowed myself the mental space for these ideas to flit and take form.

The Search

Over the weeks leading up to Christmas, I flirted with several versions of the day and this in itself was a journey, in which the first step was the questioning of my motivation in wanting to volunteer at all and the realisation that my ultimate choice would have to be informed by my motivation and understanding of what I could actually offer to my organisation of choice. When considering the option of volunteering for a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, the idea did not sit comfortably with me, as instinctively I felt that the issues, often associated with homelessness, such as mental illness and substance abuse, were not issues which I felt able to deal with; for such issues require a certain kind of understanding and handling which I do not have the confidence to wield effectively. My presence in such an environment, I feared would come across as insincere and patronising, possibly exposing me to well-founded accusations of being some plastic-smiling Lady Bountiful…or so it seemed to me.

The same trepidation applied to volunteering with children. Again I experienced that sense of inadequacy, although this time, for the simpler reasoning that although I find children adorable; apart from the occasional flutter of broodiness and the genuine utterances of the word ‘bless’ at the sight of little people being all cherubic and cute, I am not exactly what you would call a ‘kid’ person (as my friends will attest to!) and am known to cast an appreciative glance heavenwards when encountering a bawling child as I prance home in my four and a half inch heels – childless.

Then one day, on a Google search for volunteering opportunities in my locality, I found out about a Christmas Day dinner and party for the elderly people in the neighbourhood, who would otherwise have been alone on Christmas Day. I had an instant affinity to this, as it was local and as I would be alone this Christmas, it made sense to me to help with an event for other people who would be in the same position. So I signed up, committing to helping to set up the venue on Christmas Eve, participating on Christmas Day and finally, helping to clear up on Boxing Day.

The Event

I enjoyed it so much! It was very hands on and a full schedule. I started Christmas Day by reporting to the venue at 9am and throughout the course of the day, I adapted to a range of roles which were new to me, from escorting several guests from their homes (some in wheelchairs) to the venue in one of the fleet of minibuses which had been provided for the occasion, to waitressing, looking after the guests at the table to which I had been assigned to and making sure that the guests were happy, comfortable and entertained. The venue was impressively decked out in a theme of ‘Studio 54’ style glam (which had been chosen by the guests) of hot pink marabou and glittery mirror balls and the two hundred or so volunteers, including chefs, drivers, escorts, bar staff, medical staff, and entertainers, who gave their time on Christmas Day made a fantastic and eager collective effort for the five hundred guests who attended.

There was no typical volunteer; we were drawn from a range of ages, races, and occupations, several volunteers had brought their children to help, which was a wonderful demonstration of teaching your children by example. On the same token, there were no typical guests, for the real lesson for me was to realise that beyond the advanced years of the guests and varying mobility issues, the whole point of this was to engage with individuals who are part of our community. To illustrate this point, the many guests I met throughout the day included an retired social worker, an Elvis impersonator (who introduced himself to me by kissing my hand and crooning ‘hello baby’) and a woman who emerged from her house when I came to collect her, in bright red lipstick, leggings, a diva-esque fur jacket and a mission – as she put it – ‘to pull’.

The Upshot

We are so used to hearing the well-publicised lament of our society going wrong, of a ‘broken Britain’ where self-interest has all but killed off a sense of community. On Christmas morning, when getting ready to go to the venue, I listened to a Radio 4 report which stated that half a million elderly people were due to spend Christmas Day alone. The report included a moving interview with an elderly man who spoke of his isolation. The interview resulted in an overwhelming response from scores of listeners, offering the elderly man company and support, conveying the message that despite the negative perceptions of our society, hammered out with intense regularity in the press, there are many people who do care. Over this Christmas, I was thoroughly inspired and convinced by the desire of such people, to actively engage in their community. On a personal level, this experience has renewed my appreciation for my fortunate circumstances and most importantly, demonstrated the simple power of converting benevolent intentions into positive action.

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  1. by Keith On February 25, 2010 at 21:58

    Hi there, was very interested to read about this. I really like the fact that you turned this awkward day into something truly positive. There are a lot of people that talk-the-talk but little else. I guess community does really exist if you go looking for it, but we’re all supposed to be oh-so-very-busy and popular without the time to think about anything like that.

    I suppose the obvious question to ask, though, is: “Next time you’re busy on Christmas Day, will you give this place a second thought?”

  2. by Denise On February 25, 2010 at 22:06

    I certainly would do it again. The beauty of it is that there is no obligation to volunteer throughout the whole period, you give as much of your time as you are willing to.
    One thing I would also like to add is that ever since taking part in that event, I have recognised and been recognised by people in my neighbourhood who would have othewise been anonymous faces and even made a couple of friends.
    ‘Walking the walk’ is the very essence of living your life creatively, because it is about the resultant action of the intention.

  3. by Keith On February 25, 2010 at 22:16


  4. by Keith On February 25, 2010 at 22:22

    BTW, you might want to take a look at mine, although I don’t post there very often. Should try to do more there really. Again, like yours, it’s just a place where I can scribble things down that might otherwise be bumping around my head.

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