Hit the right note? You may be wondering if this is political correctness run amok:...doesn't the Christmas message resonate with echoes of homelessness, displacement, and good news for the poor? Isn’t it actually the most fitting of all church feasts for people on the streets, and in hardship? Wasn't the stable at Bethlehem a night shelter of sorts, serviced by an angelic outreach team with philanthropists on camels supplying the extras?
I could respond by stating that Holy Week is a far more fitting season for people facing homelessness or without fuel or food or friends. I could say that Lent is a journey of hunger and displacement culminating in terror, injustice and violence. Conversely homelessness is not a journey aided by angels culminating in the sudden arrival of three mysterious travellers with a Harrods bag for all, but the dangerous impact of economic and social policies which are dismantling brick by brick the fabric of our society. In the UK, the pace of social uncertainty continues to accelerate with benefit changes, cuts to public services, rise in evictions and the cost of living, and yes, Lent is far closer than Advent to the reality of people struggling on the flipside of society.
But that isn't the reason why we don’t deck the halls and every moving target with boughs of holly. It's not about conserving our fervour for another more fitting feast but about recognising that Christmas, for many people is painful because they are not going to spend it with loved ones, nor in a cosy home surrounded by warm memories and cards. Instead they face the season psychologically alone, financially excluded and frightened; not knowing how they are going to make it into 2018, and what it may hold for them, if they do.
One man whose trauma I will never forget (his middle name was Noel) told me that even the sound of Christmas TV adverts made him cry and he had to cover his ears. I actually witnessed it on one occasion and I still recall his tears. Nearing the end of his life, as his liver ground to a halt, and I visited him in hospital, he told me why he didn’t do Christmas. He told me that on Christmas Eve at the age of 10 he was left to fight off an abuser while a member of his family looked on laughing, telling him that it was only a Christmas kiss. He went on to pass many Christmases in Pentonville, alone in a cell thinking about the betrayal of that night, or sleeping in cars in the oblivion of class A addiction. He had been locked out of Christmas.
For most of our clients and for ourselves, the emotional baggage of Christmas is not so heavy nor intense, but who can deny that Christmas is the ultimate magnifier of moods and if things are going well, Christmas is swell. If the year has been difficult, and sickness, broken relationships, unemployment, and even death have marked it, Christmas is one river too many to cross, one mountain too high to climb. Among people at The Manna, typical of many in homelessness, a significant number have experienced a traumatic loss somewhere in their past, and at Christmas that loss often locks them out of the jollity, or causes them to engage with it manically, often self medicating on drugs, alcohol and food.
For all these reasons and more, we don't indulge in microwaved jollity. The Manna is a Drop In Centre for people in hardship and homelessness. We are not a fast food outlet or a themed restaurant so we neither hide nor impose Christmas celebrations on anyone. We recognise that a lot of people coming to us are seeking what they cannot provide for themselves: good food and shared conversation in a bright, well heated building. We are happy to play our part in their Christmas. But we need to remember the significant numbers of people, like Noel, for whom the season of joy has never reached their lived experience and the pain of past losses presses in more than at any other time of the year. Many who come through our doors all year live in the shadow of mental illness, survivors of abuse, and yes, even in the shadow of death.
For countless folk it is going to be a very hard Christmas this year, cut from welfare without a just appeal, or facing summons and sanctions into the New Year. I have spent a lot of desk time preparing ESA forms, attending Work Capability Assessments and then going onto challenge the indefensible misrepresentations of the same assessments. Yes, it has been a year of pushing back against real injustice perpetrated on the most vulnerable people in society. The present government has turned its face away from the reality of low income and disabled peoples' lives. And now as we approach the end of the year, Universal Credit hovers like the Ghost of Christmas Future, clanking its chains of debt into 2018.
So to clarify my opening statement about Christmas as background music, it is the secular Christmas brand we avoid; the obligatory happiness and plenty one with little room for manoeuvre, obscuring the original message of heaven reaching down to the poor and ordinary with the radical justice of a new king and a new kingdom. Yet amidst the bling and blare, the season still holds the energy of the sacred which tugs at our hearts to believe again in a better future, and in a miraculous redeeming moment. So here at The Manna we position ourselves in that hinterland of presence, rejoicing with those who rejoice but gently, quietly, so as to ensure we are the salt of the earth and not the salt in the wound, of those like Noel, who have hung a ' do not disturb' sign on their souls. We just want to help them get through it safely.