We have become accustomed, of late, to think of the lonely at Christmas; those without family or friends, those who are widowed or suddenly alone after a period of togetherness. Media coverage tends to focus on elderly people at Christmas, quite justifiably conscious of the gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of social connection and belonging during a season marked by togetherness.
|The world's first Christmas card, produced in 1834|
Of course, for many people, families bring sadness and discomfort and a gap between the real and the ideal. The Victorian invention of Christmas, with all its trimmings: turkeys and sprouts, long hours spent at leisure, Christmas cards and carols, is just that for many: an invention. I have written about this invention for the Wellcome Collection, which is devoting a series of articles to loneliness during the Christmas week.
There are many kinds of Christmases, many different versions of family. Yet for homeless people and refugees, Christmas brings a particular kind of loneliness. The history of loneliness has received very little attention, though we know it is both an urban, modern problem. Early modern politicians worried about 'masterless men' roaming the countryside, many of whom were soldiers, but homelessness grew exponentially as a result of urbanisation and industrialisation in the nineteenth century.
It is impossible as 2018 draws to a close, not to see the numbers of homeless people increasing. Since the 1980s, homelessness has been a particularly growing problem in the UK (and the US), but never before has it been so visible on our streets. Tory austerity and benefit cuts have resulted in more people than ever before being homeless at Christmas, as well as all year round. This Christmas, more than 24,000 people will sleep rough in Britain over the festive period. It's a shocking statistic.
As the weather becomes colder and the spirit of Christmas falls upon us, why not spare a thought for those with no place to call home. Organisations that support the homeless at Christmas include Crisis, which not only provides a Christmas meal and companionship, but also crucial medical and physical care. The Salvation Army provides support for homeless families and individuals, while other charities support specific groups, like veterans.
Support for the homeless is needed all year round, not only at Christmas. Charities facing a glut of volunteer in the festive season find themselves chronically understaffed the rest of the year. Like loneliness, the emotional effects of homelessness are exacerbated by the symbolism of the season. Not everyone wants to be with other people at Christmas; not everyone celebrates Christmas. But everyone wants a place to feel safe, and somewhere to come home to.
Wishing all readers and fellow History Girls a safe and happy Christmas.