Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Christmas spirit

On Monday morning, the Church of Ireland Dean of Belfast Dr Houston McKelvey will don his 'Black Santa' outfit and begin yet another sit-out for charity.

This annual collection is as much part of Christmas as the fairy tree lights and the tinsel in your home and mine, and yet, while it is a comforting reminder of the nobler side to the human spirit, it should never be taken for granted.

The Belfast Black Santa is a phenomenon which is unique, to my knowledge, in the worldwide Anglican Church. Since 1976, the three successive Black Santas and their colleagues have raised nearly £3m for a wide range of charities at home and overseas. This is one of the more enduring and positive images of Belfast which has not been given quite the universal publicity it deserves.

The sit-out was the creation of the larger-than-life Dean Samuel Crooks, who was concerned about the necessary but expensive re-building programme at the Cathedral in the mid-70s. As a gesture of faith, he decided to start a sit-out to help raise money for the needy. Despite the worst of the Troubles, when Belfast was literally being blown to pieces, the idea of a collection for charity struck a deep chord with the public on all sides, and since then people have given generously.

After Sammy Crooks' untimely death, his successor, Dean Jack Shearer carried on the tradition, and by the time he retired in 2000, the collective total was some £2.2m. Since then, Dean McKelvey has continued literally with the good work, but he wisely decided not to set annual targets, like his predecessors.

Nevertheless, the money kept rolling in, and I have no doubt that this year the people will continue to give generously.

Much publicity is given to the annual sit-out, but a few weeks after Christmas another significant event takes place, when the cheques are given to a wide range of recipients at a special service. Last year, I was asked to hand out some of these, and I know how much the money makes a difference, especially to the smaller charities.

However, Dean McKelvey makes the point that it is not just about money.

The donations are important to recipients because it makes them realise that people care about what they do. Not everyone can work for a charity, but their donations help to make the on-going work possible.

This is also true of the developing world, and each year a large sum from the Dean's sit-out goes to Christian Aid and its partners throughout the world.

Two years ago, just before the New Year, I travelled to South Africa and in a particularly poor part of that beautiful country I noticed Christmas trees where the people could not afford lights, but only tinsel. The daily priority there is just to stay alive.

There is also a contrast between rich and poor at home. People are conscious not only about the statistics regarding under-privileged children, but also those unfortunates who - for whatever reason - are still to be seen begging on some of our streets.

The tragedy of the murdered sex workers in Suffolk highlights not only the crazed violence of someone, but also the conditions which trap these young girls into a life of prostitution and often of drugs, and the men who create such a sordid market in human flesh. Such savagery seems even worse at Christmas, which is meant to be a time for celebration and generosity.

The Black Santa, and the people who make donations to him, underline clearly the true spirit of Christmas. Long may the Black Santa tradition continue.

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