By lunchtime on Thursday December 18 Dean John Mann was roughly mid-way through this year’s extra-long Black Santa Sit-out at St Anne’s Cathedral.
He pops indoors briefly to deposit yet another bag of cash, or to pen his diary which appears daily in the Belfast Telegraph, and on most days these are Dean Mann’s only break from the Cathedral steps.
He doesn’t like to go inside too often in case he misses people he might know as well people he doesn’t. “I know some people really like to speak to me and I don’t want to miss them or them miss me,” he said.
And so the Dean is averaging six hours a day, always ready with a cheery smile, an outstretched hand and a Christmas greeting to all passers-by.
He is on the steps, dressed in a warm scarf and hat and his black Anglican cloak, from 8.30am each day, and doesn’t finish until well after dark. “It doesn’t really feel like eight hours,” the Dean said. “I am always in good company and we chat all the time to each other and to the people who stop by.”
The Dean is supported by the Cathedral Chapter, the Bishops of Connor and Down and Dromore, with the Cathedral clergy stepping up when there is an empty slot.
The weather has been relatively kind since the Sit-out began on Friday December 12, although by the second Friday temperatures were positively dipping, not helped by a chill wind. The traditional Sit-out was extended this year to coincide with the unveiling of a Blue Plaque to Dean Sammy Crooks.
Wind, rain or cold are no deterrent to Dean Mann and his fellow clergy, or to those who come to donate. On Thursday morning they included one lady who said she made a point of coming down every year. “You do a great job,” she told the Dean.
Another man, loaded down by Christmas shopping, stopped by with a donation, almost dropping his boxes and bags in the process. The driver of a number 238 bus beeped the horn, and the Dean hurried out to receive a donation from the window of the cab, not wanting to hold up the traffic in Donegall Street. Soon after a taxi slowed to a halt, beeping, and again the Dean was delighted to step into the road to accept the donation.
And people just kept coming, some donating coins, some with bags heavy with change, and many shyly slipping notes into the Black Santa barrel.
Cars frequently pull up in front of the Cathedral, stopping briefly on the double yellows as someone leaps out to quickly pop in a donation, all of them making a point of driving past the Cathedral just to support Black Santa.
A minibus from Belfast Metropolitan College stops close by and a group of students from the College’s Centre for Supported Learning clamber out and make their way to the barrel. They raised a substantial sum of money by holding a craft and bun sale and a raffle, and split the proceeds between Trocaire and Black Santa. They brought with them a donation of £275 which was gratefully received by the Dean. The group chatted about how they had raised the money, and posed for photographs before returning to their minibus. The effort to both raise the money and to travel down to Donegall Street was appreciated.
On Friday morning the Lord Mayor of Belfast stopped by with a donation. Councillor Nichola Mallon was accompanied by Hannah Gibson, a pupil at Grosvenor Grammar School, who is work shadowing Belfast’s First Citizen for the day. The Lord Mayor spent some time chatting to Dean Mann and the Rev Nigel Kirkpatrick, a Minor Canon of the Cathedral, who was sitting-out with the Dean at the time.
And so the Sit-out continues and will do until darkness falls on Christmas Eve (with the exception of Sunday).
If you have missed the Black Santa Diary in the Belfast Telegraph, entries to date are below. The diaries feature all sort of things, ranging from mega sized anonymous donations to seagulls, and from moisturising cream to Belfast humour – and of course football…!
A very wet day yesterday; not unexpected, but the good news is that the collection had a real boost during the course of the morning, with hundreds of pounds being left in for the Appeal.
I must tell you about all our neighbours too. Bagel: Bagel bring us coffee; the Police Ombudsman’s Office provided us with cups for the Blue Plaque ceremony last week; the Tourist Board staff didn’t send each other Christmas cards but put the money together and brought it over yesterday, whilst the Church of Ireland Youth Department, whose offices are close by, held a Christmas ‘do’ for youth workers and donated everything to Black Santa. A local barrister – a great supporter of the Cathedral – said to a client who offered him a drink thankful for his work, ‘I don’t drink, give the money to Black Santa.’ It would have been a fine bottle! Offices and shops, pubs and coffee bars are very supportive.
Though it was wet, the banter at the barrel was warm and heartfelt. Before lunch I had a bishop and a canon with me who are both football lovers. This is difficult for someone like me whose interest in the beautiful game is non-existent, but the flow of jokes from giver to stand-in Santas was insatiable, and took on a whole new language. The upshot seems to be that a red club from Manchester will eventually triumph this year, whilst a team from Sheffield only win on Wednesdays. Have I got it right?
There is serious talk too of charities finding their funding cut, not to mention exasperation over endless political talks. We listen and are grateful for all we receive.
As the light fades around 3.30pm and Writers’ Square takes on the glow of evening, Christmas tress twinkle and the traffic builds up. It can be handy for us when Donegall Street is temporarily gridlocked as someone decides to do a three point turn, or ease slowly into a parking spot, for drivers and passengers wind down their windows and call us over to give a pound or fiver to the fund. It’s really building up. It stood at £79,178 at 1pm yesterday.
I have made a mistake. I realised it as water trickled down my neck on Tuesday when the rain came and with soggy gloves I ran out of fingers. I tried counting it again: Friday, when I started as the Blue Plaque to Sammy Crooks was unveiled, then Saturday, Monday (I am not out on Sundays), Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, no Sunday again, Monday, Tuesday and Christmas Eve. I am telling everyone we are doing 10 days this year, rather than the normal eight. I am a finger short a second time. It’s actually eleven days. Never mind; more chance of hitting the target!
Having the Cathedral clergy with me on a rota is a great help; the Bishops of Connor and Down and Dromore come too – it never seems to rain for them – and they know so many people. They are both on for a while today, so maybe the promised rain will stay away. Meanwhile the money is continuing to come in and the Belfast humour is in full swing. “Have you got change of a 5p?” says one man, dropping in a note. Carol Singing in the John Hewitt raised £100; representatives of charities that benefit from the fund make the point of dropping by and donating; a lady joined us for Morning Prayer (held every day at 8.10am before the sit-out starts) and slipped me £200 in an envelope – I got two more envelopes with the same amount before 11.00am.
The children will appear at the weekend and, excited over Christmas coming and the school holidays, will be brought by their parents to give. Many people ask us to pray for them, and we do, or for relatives and friends going through difficult times.
Thinking of such things, our thoughts and prayers are far away too with the people of Pakistan and the terrible attack on the school there. Though most of the Black Santa money stays in our local communities some has always gone overseas. Five years ago in mid-January the sit-out sent £150,000 via Christian Aid to help rebuilding work in Haiti. There is an exhibition of photographs in St Anne’s for the next month on Haiti five years on. Do pop in and see it. At lunchtime yesterday we had about £69,000.
“Are you putting on facial moisturising cream?” my wife called across the bedroom as I donned the black for another day of collecting. “What?” “Come here!” Obeying, as is right and proper, I walked round the bed and allowed myself to be treated with an oily substance that Helen described thus: “You need this, but it may make you shiny!” “What?” says I again rudely, backing away. “Look, it says on the box, “Guaranteed to make you look younger. Effective within four weeks!” Yes, well, maybe. Come and see me in January!
The weather so far has been kind and the beating rain and wind that I recall from a couple of days last year may not come, so perhaps a layer of goose-grease or the modern equivalent that promises such fine results, may not be needed. Traditions live on though. A lady yesterday, driving from Derry, called to see us saying that she has meant to come for years, but the reminder on the TV the other night that we are on the way again to another Christmas collection. That was enough to make her come and see us and make a donation. Thank you so much for the effort and the gift. A man made a donation of £100 saying he does it in memory of Dean Crooks as we look up at his plaque and tell stories of the great man. Tourists look on in puzzlement, wondering what this is all about, as a woman crosses herself in passing the cathedral door – is that tradition dying? We are slipped a cake or two, hot chocolate and coffee and the pounds are mounting up.
People often ask, “How much has black santa raised since the start?” Good question. The answer is that we don’t know. Records have only been kept in recent years, but we do know that in Dean Crook’s day he was raising £30,000 to £50,000, whilst for most years more recently it has been in the £200,000 region, plus the special collections for the Tsunami and Haiti. My guess is about £8,000,000 in total. This year, by lunch time yesterday, the total stood at £64,190, thanks to you all!
Arriving at the Cathedral at ten to eight yesterday the row of roosting seagulls silhouetted against the brightening sky along the ridge of the roof took off with raucous cries. The noise was like a Portrush carpark on a burger-van-busy bank holiday when someone had spilled their chips. It heralded a great day for the Black Santa collection, however, as the sun shone and we hardly needed the extra layers. I think it may be different today with rain on the way!
Still, back to yesterday, and at ten to nine Donegall Street was already starting to get busy with workers arriving and even a few early shoppers. A man stopped and wished us a happy Christmas, shook hands all round – there were three of us there at the time – and dropped a flimsy plastic bag with three envelopes in it into the barrel. Off he went and in time the bag was emptied. There was £3,400 in the three envelopes! What a donation to start the day. Thank you so much for such a generous gift.
Another lovely thing happened on Saturday morning. Someone dropped in a ten pound note with a rubber band around it with clearly something inside – maybe a gift aid form, I thought. On opening it I found ten £50 notes. Another giver who was so self-effacing they would rather be seen putting in £10 than £510.
There have been lots of children past as well, and once the schools finish I know that the older ones will come too. Today Grosvenor Grammar School has its Christmas Carol service. The choir was rehearsing yesterday and it was lovely to hear the music floating out when the doors were open. Visitors sat and listened, young families came to look at the crib, the sun continued to shine and, as I tapped this out on the computer at lunchtime, the count team slipped me a note saying the total to that moment was £52,452 – with a bag or two uncounted – more than a quarter of the way to a target of £200,000. Thank you all so much!
The Black Santa collection began in a rather special way last Friday, with the unveiling of a Blue Plaque bearing the name of its founder, Dean Sammy Crooks. Those who remember those early days – we are talking 1976 – will recall the first Black Santa as a man of determined character who would unapologetically approach people for money and, as a result, he was responsible for raising large sums for the cathedral, for overseas disaster appeals and, as has become a mark of the Christmas sit-out, vital contributions to local charities.
At the unveiling of the Blue Plaque, speakers paid tribute to the inspirational person that Dean Crooks was, and the way in which his character marked the success of the Black Santa appeal, which is much helped by the media embracing this Belfast Christmas tradition.
After that special start, and with a flurry of snow falling from a chilly blue sky, we soon fell into the groove of the 2014 Cathedral Christmas Sit-out, the 38th, and the magic figure of £200,000 is there in my mind again for the target. Last year we fell an agonising £4,000 short, but £196,000 was a fabulous result nonetheless. It is a collection in three parts really. Cheques comes in prior to the actual sit-out (and electronic bank transfers now too), which amounts to a good deal before we really get going; then comes what will be 10 days of collection this year. The final third comes in after Christmas, when all the Church services, office parties, school nativity plays etc. have taken place and organisers tot up their collections and send them in January. So, if you haven’t settled on a cause for your Christmas ‘do’ yet, then remember Black Santa!
But, it is all about personal engagement too. That is what makes our chats around the barrel so valuable and the workplace collections more than just the money raised; they are all symbolic too of generosity of thought for others, and, of course, the effect of giving on the giver. Watching a child empty his or her piggy bank into the barrel, encouraged by parents who have done the same themselves, is signifying something deeper than the coins that trickle through their fingers.