Warrington, Cheshire, England, two weeks before Christmas 1993. It is the usual awful buying frenzy that dogs every Christmas. Crowds of shoppers rushing around in the town square, dashing into Boots, Marks & Spencers, Littlewoods, C&A, WH Smith etc. Jon and I are caught up in this commercial frenzy and even have to fight off other shoppers grabbing stuff on the shelves in the middle-end high street shops. Imagine this is Christmas! I used to plan every Christmas, since we got married, when to start the cookie and cake production, our Christmas meal that would come before, or on our return from my father-in-law’s about 80 miles away in the Midlands. When to start our gift buying, cleaning and decorating the house and tree.
There’s so much to do. I put on some carols as I bake. A practice picked up from home, when we were children. The smell of baking cakes and cookies always reminds me of Christmas. December days are short and it gets dark around 4pm. It’s cold and the gas fire is on in the fireplace. My house is warm and cozy, in the dim twinkling Christmas tree lights. The baking stops in the late afternoon and I move on to doing dinner, when Jon comes through the front door, hanging up his coat and scarf. I feel so lucky, so happy and content.
Yet, the world outside remains cold and dark. Odd scenes of what my subconscious has picked up during our shopping trip come to mind, unbidden. I saw a middle-aged man standing on the corner in the town square trying to sell his box of disposable lighters. His business wasn’t great but he put on a smile and a brave face. He was probably a poor homeless man, who was trying not to ask for alms. There were many homeless people, that year and a few years after, when jobs were scarce and mortgages could not be paid. Many homes were repossessed, and families turned out into the streets.
I’d been to London, a month earlier and found so many people sheltering and begging in the corridors and on the steps of the underground train stations. It might have been inner-city Mumbai, except for the cold and the different kind of people. The number of deaths that winter, would be anyone’s guess. There are always deaths in winter. Those who sleep rough and those in cold houses with little or no heating, will know. I met Bosnian refugees begging on the trains, they were pushed off by station staff from time to time.
In LIverpool, one summer, the homeless gathered in the town centre to pick up food left on park benches or even rummaged in dustbins for scraps. A man got arrested for begging. Begging had been outlawed and loiterers could be chased off by constables on patrol. It made no sense at all. Yet, the summer seemed kinder than the winter.
What can one do, when caught up in that Christmas shopping frenzy, and suddenly stopped short by a calloused hand and plaintive voice saying, “Can you spare some change?” I can only do small charity with the few pennies I have in change. I cannot save the world. Life has to go on…
Please spare a thought for the street people, the hobos, the vagrants, the street sleepers, the street children, the refugees and those who can only celebrate surviving from day-to-day. They share some experience of the very first Christmas on earth, when the babe born this day had nowhere to be born, but in a stable with some farm animals.
MERRY CHRISTMAS & A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL MY READERS.