This year, in the build up to Christmas, I've tried to do something different. Alongside writing the many Christmas cards, buying Christmas presents and trying to decide what to have for Christmas lunch, I've also made a few visits and talked with some people who find Christmas challenging.
In fact, some of the people I've visited really don't look forward to Christmas at all. Through circumstances, choices or simply bad luck, there are people in our communities who are facing a time of real hardship this Christmas. For many Christmas is a time of year to be relished, warm and secure at home with friends and family; sadly, for others, Christmas is hard.
Having to go to a Foodbank simply to get enough food to feed your family is hard. Having to go to a payday lender simply to get enough money to buy presents for your kids is hard. Sleeping rough on the streets is even harder. There are people in Gloucestershire and beyond for whom this is the reality of Christmas.
A recent report called Feeding Britain highlights the large number of people now turning to Foodbanks. The Archbishop of Canterbury, launching the report at a press conference, spoke of how "shocking it is to find this happening here" in the world's fourth largest economy.
The report attempts to assess the scale of the problem and its causes, and recommends a wide range of potential solutions. It’s hard to argue with the report’s aim that “we should be a ‘Zero Hunger Britain’ in which everybody in this country has the resources, abilities and facilities to purchase, prepare and cook fresh, healthy and affordable food, no matter where they live.”
The report asks why so many people find themselves in crisis, and explores low wages, high personal debt, increases to utility costs and changes to the benefits system.
The recommendations of the report are far reaching and already some supermarkets are responding (changing the way they donate 'waste' food). The different political parties are also looking at policy changes.
But what about me? How will I respond to the people I met and the stories I heard of people facing real hardship this Christmas? How can I make a difference to people in my own community? You would be forgiven for thinking these hardships reveal a dark picture with issues too great to overcome, and challenges too difficult to tackle. But there is hope at Christmas.
To start with, it's worth remembering that the Christmas story is all about hardship. Imagine Mary, 9 months pregnant, riding a donkey to Bethlehem. Imagine having to give birth in the mess of an animal shed. Imagine fleeing for your life when the government sends troops to kill all the babies. I'm afraid children's nativity plays often miss the most important part: pain, discomfort and mess were the realities of the first Christmas. And God entered into it all.
So how about doing something different this Christmas? This doesn't have to mean discarding the time honoured traditions of presents, family gatherings and festive fun. But it does mean entering in to the hardship of others (even in some small way). Donating food to a Foodbank, signing up to a Credit Union or giving something to a charity working with people who are homeless – these are all small, simple acts which speak of the real meaning of Christmas.