Leona O'Neill: Hearing about Christmas volunteering made me think about how much I miss my dad

As the Christmas madness gets into full swing and we all get caught up stressing over things we think we need to do and to buy, it's good to be reminded of what giving of yourself can sometimes mean to others, writes Leona O'Neill

Volunteering at Christmas time can help you to see how the giver is the receiver and that love is what matters in this life

THE countdown to Christmas has officially started. Adverts on our television instruct us what to do to have ‘the perfect Christmas’ and what products to purchase to make the festive season magical.

The pressure on parents at this time of year is astronomical. Kids are constantly fed the notion that the best, most expensive products and the latest technology are the things that will make their Christmas dreams come true. Many parents, who struggle through the rest of the year to put food on the table and clothes on the backs of their children, really feel the weight of these impossible expectations. Some will get themselves into debt and pay the price for the rest of the year.

I was in town last week, rushing through the city centre streets all lit up for Christmas to get to a story. I had lists of things I had to get for Christmas running through my head and I made mental notes to stop at various shops on the way back to pick up various things I ‘needed’ for Christmas.

The story I was rushing to was one with a local coffee shop owner who opens his doors to the elderly, lonely and challenged on Christmas Day. He, his staff and a band of big-hearted volunteers transport guests to Claude’s Cafe on Derry’s Shipquay Street, give them a beautiful Christmas dinner, present them with gifts, allow them to have good company and even a dance to some music provided and leave them home at the end of a lovely day, content and full of Christmas cheer.

They also have another band of volunteers who travel to people’s home with their Christmas dinner in pairs and sit with people who might not have anyone on the big day, to keep them company for a while.

As the Coordinator of Claude’s Caring Christmas, Dermot, told me about the people who have come along to their big Christmas celebration over the last 12 years, I felt bad about getting caught up in the commercial whirlwind of the season. There were people there who had been recently widowed, a family whose house burnt down in Christmas week, teenage mothers who had no other family, people who were homeless, elderly folks who would have spent the day alone, people with financial worries, street drinkers and people who had all manner of life’s challenges thrown at them.

All of them gathered together in one room, laughing and joking and enjoying each other’s company in the most beautiful of celebrations.

Dermot told me that he has been bringing his children to the event for years. They help out with the cooking, they mingle with the guests, they present gifts and they sing and celebrate with all in attendance. He said that it has taught them the true meaning of Christmas. They have been humbled by the experience, they have seen, truly, how the giver is the receiver and that love is what matters in this life.

Christmas is a tough time for many, for many different reasons. When I was leaving I told the coordinator that it was a tough time in our house as we have an empty chair, my dad’s.

I told him that the men’s department of Marks and Spencer’s got me every year as it was where I would get my Dad his usual Christmas scarf and gloves and a woolly jumper to get him through the winter. I said there is nowhere I miss him most, standing there in the midst of lovely cosy, woollen garments and not having him here to buy them for.

He told me to go and buy something for my Dad and gift it to a man of similar age who came to their Christmas dinner. He said he would write on a card that it was a present from a daughter to her Dad and she had wanted to pass it on to keep him warm.

I’m not ashamed to say I cried big tears that left my eyes all puffy and sent my mascara down my face.

On the way home I didn’t look into the shop windows, or notice the twinkling lights or indeed the flashing signs selling stuff, or go over in my head the lists of things my children wanted for Christmas. I had found the true meaning of Christmas and it was lovely.

If you’re in Derry on the day and you’d like to attend Caring Christmas at Claudes or volunteer on the day, you can call Claudes on 028 712 793 79 call at Claudes Cafe on Shipquay Street or private message them on their Facebook page.

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