“There, get ye gone to your dinners, Don’t mind me in the least, Think of the happy paupers, Eating your Christmas feasts, And when you recount their blessings, In your smug parochial way, Say what you did for me too, Only last Christmas Day.”
So went part of a poem written by the Victorian poet and journalist George Robert Sims, the apotheosis of whose journalistic career was prompting the foundation of the Appellate Court.
In the poem In the Workhouse Christmas Day he tried to express something of the squalor of the workhouses of the era, and the lavish Christmas parties that would be held in them.
There are plenty of articles written about them in the blogosphere, showing distinctly wretched-looking people sitting before massive plates of food, served on expensive china, with beer donated alongside – just to reinforce to the alcoholics of the house what they had been forced to leave behind.
If you’re living through wretchedness, having one day in the year where people notice or react with especial kindness isn’t going to lift the misery very quickly. What is needed is sustained effort to drive up the human dignity that a person is incrementally robbed of when they slip further into poverty and its effects.
Nevertheless, the town centre and many other parts of Northampton are always augmented around Christmastide by those seeking to try to make a special effort during the coldest season of the year while we are focussed on the Yuletide customs of goodwill and gift-giving.
Among our homeless community, of which our rough sleepers are but a part, we have people enduring a year-round problem. As much as our culture, customs, and (sometimes) faith motivates particular things in the run-up to Christmas, we also need now to be thinking about what happens after the tinsel comes down.
The first family home of Mary, Joseph and Jesus seemed to be replete with visitors who had trudged across distant lands, possibly having set out even before Jesus had actually been born, but this stability and hospitality, and the precious gifts they bring, does not last long.
The borrowed space gratefully received in Bethlehem must be returned to its owner, and as the Christmas scenes quietly break up, the family receives news that the local king has decided to conduct a massacre of infant boys under two years old, in order to wipe out the boy who would be king.
The family flees into exile to Egypt, before returning to their native Nazareth many years later once the imminent danger has passed.
A refugee from both his father’s hometown, and from his homeland, I sometimes wonder just how much kindness this young family had to subsist on until they were able to make a permanent home.
Think of the lives of those you give gifts to this Christmas – and one should never give a gift in expectation of them reciprocating – or those you show kindness to, or those whose wretchedness you are able to relieve for a moment.
Consider how, in 2019, you might be a continued gift to them. Human kindness on that scale might sound exhausting, but the goodwill of Christmastime is good fertile ground in which to practice and become adept at showing goodwill throughout the year.
And if we work together, we shall be exponentially more effective.
The Rev Oliver Coss
Rector of All Saints with St Katharine and St Peter