I spent 14 Christmases in homeless shelters when I was younger, as a volunteer then as staff. The first time I went there I thought that I was an amazing person, looking out for the “less fortunate”. What I discovered was that they had my back.
I was a 21 year old messed up kid with no parents but these people who had nothing in their life, absolutely bugger all, they looked out for me, they got me through Christmas. They chatted to me in a draughty makeshift dormitory in an East London warehouse over instant coffee in a polystyrene cup. That was it, but it was magical. Honestly, I felt right at home. I realised I didn’t need anything more.
However it has left me with a complicated relationship with Christmas. It’s a time of year when I remember witnessing the very best feeling of belonging — and yet all the noise, the Christmas fanfare everywhere you look, is rarely about that magic. The missing of the point turns my insides out. More recently I must have reached peak ‘middle age rage’ by yelling at the John Lewis Christmas ad.
The John Lewis alien
It’s weird cos every camerado ought to love the well worn formula of an unlikely bond between two strangers looking out for each other. And the knitwear! And who doesn’t love a mournful reworking of a nostalgic pop classic by a young contemporary artist so we can all still feel hip and current.
This year a young child helps an alien who has crash landed in the woods. The alien does what I do every year and eats a mince pie forgetting it has a tinfoil tray. Silly alien, thank goodness kind Homo Sapiens is there to teach them to adapt to our Christmas ways! It’s at this point I let rip “Don’t learn our ways!!! Christmas is messed up! Fix your spaceship and get the hell out of here!!”
Christmas can be crap
Is it really the best representation of humanity for a visiting alien? Course it is, you say, we’ve got the fairy lights, we’ve got the carols and lots of exciting presents. All wrapped up with this idea of peace and goodwill… thanks to a loose connection to an event of religious significance 2000 years ago which, let’s face it, nobody really wants to remember was actually about a homeless family with no access to a Waitrose. Christmas can be magical and wonderful! Yes but the operative word here is “can”. It can also be crap.
1 in 7 people don’t like Christmas (YouGov poll: 2019)
Perhaps it’s the stress. If the John Lewis alien had met a parent of the kid, they’d have seen panic buying of dead birds, arguments over the cost of everything and awkward family meet-ups. The American psychological society says there’s a 38% increase in stress in the general public during the season. My own antipathy for Christmas, however, stems from a more serious impact. Consider this…
What if the alien crashed into a crack den?
I can see it now. “Hey little alien pass the crack pipe but don’t eat the tin foil too!”. Ok so nobody reading this has been to a crack den (their den-making skills are overrated, just saying) so let’s make this a little more relatable. So how about if the alien had crash landed in your local Off License?
There’s a person struggling with addiction who has been doing really well staying off the booze for most of the year — a gruelling battle of will and immense emotional turmoil — but then look…along comes good old Christmas. So they pass the alien some peculiarly cheap super strength lager “Don’t eat the whole can you silly vomiting alien!”. I’ve met so many people with addictions for whom Christmas is the wrecking ball to their sobriety.
A camerado in Scarborough called Hannah Green is a remarkable person. If you get a chance read her book It tells the story of someone surviving horrific challenges in their life. So you can’t imagine something as daft as Christmas flooring her. Yet she says:
It’s the worst time of the year for me. For me it is a massive trigger… when I was a kid things were always worse at Christmas. Now everyone is drinking so that just makes it harder… more people ask me more questions “why you not drinking?” … it is more socially acceptable to drink than not drink, which makes it hard for me to join in.”
Another camerado from the Midlands pointed out another side of Christmas
It saddens me when I see how Christmas has now just become one big enormous expense and we’re judged by the size of our presents. That’s not easy for everyone. Not everyone can afford a flashy Christmas. And to be honest I don’t think it’s necessary. My favourite Christmas was at a time when my Dad’s business folded and we had very little money so he and my Mum made my present;it was a clown that was bigger than me and had straps on it’s feet so I could dance with it. I’ve kept it for years and years, unlike all the other gifts that probably came from Argos.
When I read this, I think about a different Christmas ad, have you seen the one for Etsy?
The Etsy ad has a woman telling a friend she’s spending Christmas on her own. We see her curling her hair and getting all dressed up just to eat alone in an empty house. Then the friend appears at the door with a monogrammed bathrobe, and the next day they are with a gang of people, wild swimming in a lake and laughing together. What I like here is there’s no, what I call, “bad kindness” going on? The friend didn’t frown at her, judge her life alone, she didn’t make a fuss and try to fix that with “You’re coming to mine and I won’t hear another word about it!”. She just gave her an option to come somewhere as an equal, for some fun, where she didn’t feel like a charity case, where she could have dignity and not be pitied. She kind of honoured her Christmas alone, but just gave her a bit of company to look forward to.
Christmas is full of folk doing what they think that “less fortunate” people need at this time of year. I’ve been guilty of filling shoeboxes with presents that I chose and sending them to strangers with whom I have no connection just because they’re poor. There’s no relationship there. I’d forego a thousand pity parcels for a cup of tea and some company wouldn’t you? When life pounds you, see how you feel about a selection box from someone you don’t know. You feel like a loser. I’d be jumping in that lake with my Etsy robe.
The Etsy friend had something in common with the John Lewis alien. She had antennae. Maybe we could all be a little alien this Christmas, grow some antennae and be much more aware of those around us for whom this is a tricky time of year. Having our antennae out means we notice, it doesn’t mean we have to fix people. That’s one of the most important principles of the camerados movement — we just let people know we’re alongside, that they’re not alone.
Maybe I can love Christmas after all
I think this might help those of us who love parts of Christmas but have it ruined by the stress, hypocrisy or our guilty conscience. My wife got fed up of my Christmas grumps a few years back and demanded I do something about it. So now we host a small camerados public living room in the community centre opposite our house on Christmas Day for anyone to pop by for a cuppa if they’re finding the day hard. On Boxing Day we then stay in our pyjamas all day mainlining Harvey’s Bristol Cream and brandy buttered mince pies.
But it doesn’t have to be anything structured like that. For Divali I know someone who opened their front door just to find two little decorative candles lit and sitting on their step. A tiny but beautiful little gesture showing they were being thought about during the festival of light by their neighbour, who in turn probably felt good about doing that too.
Some have alien antennae ready fitted
Some of us, like Hannah and our Midlands camerado can be made to feel like aliens just because they do Christmas differently. However at least they come with antennae!
You see just like those people who shared a coffee in a polystyrene cup with me that first Christmas without my mum and dad, they notice when people are struggling and give them purpose by saying “let’s look out for each other”. And that makes us all feel good. So it’s a mutual thing. People going through proper tough times come with the antennae ready fitted it seems. But guess what? So do you. We all go through some sort of tough time in our life. So hidden under your hair are little antennae. You can be an alien and notice too.
Grow them this Christmas. Look out for each other.
Be a camerado.
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Grow your antenna this Christmas by looking out for each other online #OverABrew.
Camerados is a movement of folk from Blackpool to Baltimore who share the simple belief that having ‘People and Purpose’ in your life is the most important thing. So this year the movement has decided to host a series of events #OverABrew to make space for both those vital things. It’s happening all online and every event is 100% free. Click here to find out more.
If you don’t fancy looking out for each other online, why not do something in your local area? Movement members have created these posters you can print off at home and attach to your local park bench to get folk chatting with each other. Click here to find out more.
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About the Author
Maff Potts is founder of the Camerados movement and a Director for the Association of Camerados, the small team that supports the movement.
To find out more about the Camerados movement, click here.