Look around you – it’s hard resisting the festive spirit. The city swamped in starry lights, non-stop chatter on radio about plans for the holiday season, and TV advertisements imploring us to ‘give’, and ‘make it just that extra special for someone’.
‘Tis the season to be jolly, they say, but there’s not much room in big brand advertising for the symbolism of the birth of Christ, or the charitable traditions of Christmas…. so what really is Christmas?
A few weeks ago, a group of colleagues from work and I took a break from the self-indulgent nature of Christmas when we were invited to spend the day with young disadvantaged children at a primary school in South London.
Together with Kids Company – a charity that provides practical, educational and emotional support to children around London, we organised six different activities from cupcake dressing and face-painting, to making cards and playing musical chairs.
The volunteers dressed up as Santa’s elves, Christmas trees, and a Christmas pudding. Of the Santas, one in particular was effortlessly jolly and the other had a sophisticated hand wave. The elves and trees were cheerful throughout the day and made sure the kids had enough to eat and drink.
As a Christmas pudding, I was tasked with face painting. Nervous at first, I gradually got better with every butterfly and lion, and excelled in Superman faces. I just hoped nobody would want ‘Lady Gaga’.
While having their faces painted, some of the kids engaged in conversation, but others preferred to stay quiet and concentrate on the final outcome. Many left satisfied, recommending to their friend and pointing to the face-painting desk. It wasn’t long before we heard another ‘Miss, I would like a butterfly.’
‘Are you looking forward to Christmas?’ I asked Jeff, a seven year old boy (name changed). There was a hesitation followed by a soft whisper ‘No’.
The feeling of anxiety before Christmas is not unique to young children. Yesterday, at Crisis – a shelter that welcomes rough sleepers and people without families – there was an elderly lady, perhaps in her early sixties, apprehensive about idea of spending the day on her own. ‘Without public transport, don’t think I could make it to the centre, and I’m not sure what I’d do by myself apart from smoke cigarettes, she said wistfully.
For all that X’mas has to offer – Christmas markets, festive treats et al, I became slightly confused about the spirit of Christmas.
While Covent Garden saw festive shoppers indulge in the festive spirit, the world of young children at Kids Co. and Crisis was a far cry from what I see every day.
Perhaps the idea of Santa Claus is a fictional character that some children only see in films. While speaking with the Kids Co. volunteers, we were informed a majority of the children at the school were emotionally abused, homeless and from troubled backgrounds.
‘A significant proportion of children find Christmas a struggle and this is further exacerbated by pre-existing financial difficulties in their families,’ said Jasmina Stosic from Kids Company. ‘These children don’t come from stable homes.
They have to make choices between paying the gas bills and celebrating
Christmas,’ she added.
Similarly volunteers at Crisis are up against the odds in trying to accommodate most guests as there has been a 43 per cent increase in homeless people since the last year.
Recent statistics released by Joseph Rowntree Foundation show child poverty in the UK has fallen to 27 per cent, its lowest rate for almost 25 years. However Jasmina said, ‘That frankly is misleading, we are looking after more than 36,000 children, and the number is growing.’
I recalled what Dr. Seuss had said in How the Grinch stole Christmas: “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store? What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
With more than 30,000 children anxious about the holiday season, and a significant rise in people without a roof above their head, we could probably all afford to do a little bit more, either with our time or our money, to benefit those for whom Christmas offers no consolation from daily life.
Nobody said it would be easy – but not forgetting those most in need at Christmas time will mean more smiles on children’s faces all year round.