This Christmas Day I did something I'd been meaning to do for years, but various things had always got in the way - usually the simple pressure to spend the day with one relative or another.
But 2009 was my year for changing things so I started making enquiries in October into volunteering opportunities in Brighton for Xmas Day. Information was few and far between, but via the Brighton Volunteer Centre I got in contact with Brighthelm Community Centre. They run a community Christmas on 25th and 26th every year and needed around 20 volunteers each day. So I got in touch with the organiser and was welcomed as a volunteer, then I met up with them on the 22nd for a little planning meeting. They were a diverse bunch, which I guess was only to be expected. I didn't really learn much about what to expect on the day, other than the fact that the guy who normally does the entertainment had unfortunately died a few weeks ago, so they were asking all the volunteers to pitch in and help out. Eek.
So 9am Christmas morning found me walking the half hour to the centre, through a deserted Brighton, wearing my most cheerful clothes, Xmas baubles in my ears and carrying my guitar.
When I arrived, the kitchen was a hive of activity with 5 volunteers having got there early to attack 25lbs of sprouts, hundreds of potatoes and the usual trimmings. There was a huge nut roast parcel waiting to be cooked, 3 gigantic turkeys, 2 huge hams, bread sauce, cheese sauce and gravy, someone making custard from scratch, and a gigantic Christmas cake.
The kitchen appeared to be under control so I set to work helping to lay the tables and working on teas and coffees. Which turned out to be my job for most of the day, by default. People started to arrive around 10.30, and having walked there in the freezing cold, were in need of a hot drink. And of course some of them were homeless so had actually spent all night outside.
At 11am there was a mini service because the community centre is also a church - however, most of the guests were sitting in the eating area and chatting and the volunteers were busy, so most of us just vaguely hummed along with the carols!
At 12 we started to serve up hot soup from a tureen the size of a small house. The soup turned out to be WAY too popular and it ran out before everyone had had a cup. Cue frantic searching through the cupboards where we finally tracked down 5 boxes of tomato cup-a-soup and everyone was happy.
At 1, it was time for the mammoth task of dishing up a full Xmas dinner to the 65-odd guests. Each volunteer chose a table to serve and went backwards and forwards between the table and the hatch, collecting steaming hot plates of turkey, roasties, mash, sprouts, carrots, bread sauce, cranberry sauce and gravy. Once everyone else was served, we got to eat too! The veggie nut roast was lovely and as not quite as many veggies had turned up as expected, I got 2 helpings. With extra sprouts! The guests were all offered seconds too, and most accepted though strangely enough, the second time around most of them said they'd have everything except the sprouts! Can't understand it.
Before dessert, it was time to dole out the presents, all of which had been donated to the group over the preceding weeks and wrapped by the organiser and her family. Unfortunately, having carefully originally separated the presents out into male, female and unisex, the parcels had all got mixed up on the way to the centre so it was a case of waiting until everyone had opened their present, and then swapping if they wanted to. Christmas pudding and custard followed, though there was way too much. Then more tea and coffee! I think over the course of the day, I made about 30 large pots of tea, 15 pots of fresh coffee and we cleared about 25 pints of milk.
The group started to thin out after that, but probably half of them stayed on for "entertainment"! Several of the older guys took their turn on the mike, with rousing choruses of What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor, My Way, Side by Side, Pack up your Troubles etc, complete with a can-can dancing pensioner and much use of a tambourine. A couple of people read poems. The minister and his family had made a somewhat bizarre home video version of the nativity story, which was shown on a big screen. I didn't escape, so my guitar and I made it to the front for just one song, thankfully. An attempt was made to feed the Queen's speech through onto the big screen via the net but it was not to be! Oh dear. What a shame. Never mind. I've made it this many years without ever having seen the damn thing, don't see why I should start now!
Over the course of the day, I'd chatted to a good number of both volunteers and guests. I met Annie, a volunteer who's a jazz singer and medium; Suzanna who has the smiliest face I've ever seen; Michael, a guest (who'd come to the centre via a mental health charity) who knew everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) there is to know about the life, works and death of Bruce Lee and was determined to make sure that everyone else knew it all by the end of the day too. The 50 out of focus photos of various BL-related places in Hong Kong were a bit of a trial, to be honest! I talked to a lovely guy who for reasons I didn't get to the bottom of, is currently living at a homeless hostel where he can enter at midnight but has to be out by 6am, so for 18 hours a day he's on the streets. If he hadn't told me that, I'd never have known. He was eloquent, intelligent, reasonably nicely turned out (!) Yet he came back for food and drinks over and over, pointing out that he hadn't eaten since the 23rd so was stocking up. He needed to phone the hostel to make sure he could get a place that night, but didn't have 20p for the phone either, so he borrowed my mobile then constantly thanked me and apologised for the next hour! I had random, brief and bizarre conversations with many people, but they all had one thing in common - if it weren't for the community Christmas, they would either be alone at home, or simply have absolutely nowhere to go. It was an eye-opener, made me feel very privileged but also made me realise even more what an obscenely over-commercial, expensive and wasteful time Christmas is for most of us.
I finally made it home at about 5.30, tired and desperately in need of a drink (no alcohol allowed during the day!) but very, very glad I'd done it. And I'll do it again. I can recommend it!