On Saturday 22nd December 2013 at 12.00pm something special happened next to the Queen Victoria statue in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester.
Strangers, all from different backgrounds and of all ages gathered together with rucksacks, flasks and sleeping bags but this was no camping outing or protest movement, just a simple act of human kindness as rucksacks baring clothing, food and toiletries were collected and given out to those less fortunate than ourselves.
This simple idea was started by Matthew White, A man from Bristol whom, like many others felt the true meaning and spirit of Christmas has been lost. He decided to do something simple about it so he gathered together some warm clothing, a flask of hot soup, underwear, a sleeping bag and put it all in a rucksack and gave it to a grateful homeless man. This movement, the rucksack project, is now spreading and people are organising events far and wide.
For many of us Christmas has come to mean something different these days. Christmas now is about a fictional fairy tale character, excessive eating and drinking, a Pagan tree tradition, German markets, enough coloured flashing light bulbs to cover the moon and the same cheesy festive music that returns each year. Not to mention the bombardment of adverts, store sales and the pressure we all feel to find those perfect presents for our families and friends.
Christmas is not about any of those things, Christmas is the story of how Jesus Christ came into the world. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start preaching. Even if you are not a Christian, Christmas still has a broader message. It’s the message of hope and the message of love. Without love and without hope we have nothing, it is the greatest gift of all.
For those on the streets this time of year can be truly unforgiving. Parts of Britain are currently being battered with heavy rain and high winds. The temperatures can be below freezing. Our city centre streets are full of drunken late night revellers making them very noisy, dangerous places to be for those whose only shelters are building porch ways, bridge archways and subways. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a shelter, you may have to walk miles to secure the accommodation.
On the streets, people walk past you and ignore you as if you aren’t even there. Others are cruel and see you as some object them can kick, abuse or steal from. There seems to be very little hope. A rucksack may be a very simple gesture, one that cost us relatively little but to someone who literally has nothing, it may be the difference between keeping warm or freezing to death. It may be the one act of kindness that gives hope.
Christmas is not just a miserable time for those on the streets. With the cost of energy, food, shelter and bills sky-rocketing, many families will have little to cheer about this Christmas. The recession has hit hard with lots of hard working people losing their jobs and therefore the ability to feed their families. Add to that the callous changes to our benefits system that makes it harder than ever to survive. Our Government tries to deflect blame away from the greed of the rich onto the poorest in our society that are unable to defend themselves. We’re told that people on benefits are living a life of luxury whilst we have to work. They conveniently neglect to mention that it is their own policies that make it very difficult for people to get the skills they need to find work.
At least those families struggling to survive in impoverished conditions they have each other. Christmas is a time of year that exacerbates loneliness. There are lots of elderly people that will have no visitors this Christmas. It’s easy to forget the less visible members of our communities but social isolation is a real problem for many people and it’s so unnecessary.
We live in the age of the internet and social media where it’s never been easier to contact people no matter where they are on this planet of ours but a keyboard is a poor substitute for human contact. Lets not lose that ability to reach out and talk to each other. We’re all so busy these days that we don’t take enough time to focus on the things that are really important. We become consumed in our problems but no matter how bad things are, there are always those worse off than ourselves and reaching out to others can make us appreciate the blessings of our own lives more.
This Christmas, as you tuck into your Turkey’s and rip open your presents, I want you to spare a thought for all those that find this time of year very difficult. Least not those that find they’re setting less places at the table than they aught to be. For the bereaved, Christmas is a reminder of the previous good times enjoyed and also the terrible pain that is still enduring. That pain cannot be taken away but through our thoughts, our prayers and our actions we can let those that have lost someone dear to them know that our thoughts are with them, and hopefully that will bring some comfort.
Christmas comes just once a year but human suffering goes on all year round. Each and every one of us should look into our hearts and think about what more we can do to make this world a better place. Whether that be just popping in to chat with an elderly neighbour when we can or donating unwanted gifts to charities or joining in with movements like the rucksack project, if we all did a little bit then the world would be a better place.
Helping others not only makes their lives better but it enriches your own life and that is why next year I will do my bit. I will give up a few hours a week of my free time to do whatever I can to help those that need it and I hope that others will do the same to spread light where there is darkness, hope where there is despair and love where there is hate.
Wishing everyone a very joyful Christmas and a Happy New Year full of hope!