The power of hope – Dean’s reflections on Black Santa 2020

Monday January 4th 2021

Belfast's Black Santa - Dean Stephen Forde.

Belfast’s Black Santa – Dean Stephen Forde.

As we enter 2021 and thoughts of Christmas begin to fade, a reminder that the spirit of Christmas giving can continue, as Belfast Cathedral’s Black Santa Appeal is taking donations for a little longer.

For the Dean of Belfast, the Very Rev Stephen Forde, the build-up to Christmas Day is all about the annual sit-out, standing on the steps of St Anne’s Cathedral, raising funds for more than 200 charities across Northern Ireland. Funds donated during the 2020 appeal – the 44th annual sit-out – are still being tallied.

As always, the Dean was supported by the Bishops of Connor and Down and Dromore, Cathedral clergy, and the Canons of the Cathedral. The 2020 sit-out began on December 17 and continued until Christmas Eve.

With the pandemic and Covid-19 restrictions, it was a somewhat different Black Santa Sit-out compared to previous years. Dean Forde shared his thoughts each day in his Black Santa Diary, published in the Belfast Telegraph.  In case you missed it, here are some snippets from the Black Santa Diary 2020:

December 18 – Keeping safe for a Covid Christmas

Each year for the Black Santa Sit-out, I pull on thick socks and boots to keep my feet warm. I tightly fasten the traditional black cloak which gives its name to Black Santa. But this year, there is more to do.

I had to fix my face covering over my mouth. Somehow I had to stop my glasses from steaming up. I had to ensure 2m social distancing was maintained. It is all part of that strange new world we have entered, trying our best to keep ourselves and those we care most about safe in the days coming up to Christmas.

The first day of the sit-out can be hectic. The two Bishops most involved in the life of the cathedral joined me for the first morning. But even Bishops have to be masked and kept 2m apart…

Each conversation… spoke of the need for all of us to keep safe in the days between now and Christmas. Face coverings, social distancing, and protecting all who are most vulnerable. The help which the Black Santa Appeal will give in the New Year must be built on the protection we give to one another in the last days of this year.

Cappella Caeciliana provided music during a visit to the sit-out.

December 21 – Holding onto hope

On Saturday, the streets of Belfast were busy with shoppers. It almost seemed like the old normal. At the cathedral we even managed some socially-distanced, out-of-doors carol singing. The first of this December…

But as the carollers were folding up their music, news began to filter through of much tighter restrictions on Christmas from the other nations of the UK.  Lives have been upended. Christmas plans are dashed. “And in those days, there went out a decree.”

What changes will be made to our own regulations? Does it not feel to so many as if Christmas has truly been cancelled? I even find myself wondering will it be possible this year to continue as Black Santa on the cathedral steps?

But Christmas was born out of crisis and decree – “And it came to pass in those days…” Mary and Joseph’s lives were upended. “No room at the inn” saw hopes dashed and fear advance.

But into the fear, and the spoiled plans, and the ever changing regulations, a baby was born. Hope was rekindled. Christmas wasn’t cancelled. Christmas was born. That’s why I need to keep standing on the steps this Christmas of all Christmases. This Christmas too many people depend on Black Santa standing on the steps. Too many people depend on the generosity of those who stop and give.

December 22 – An inspiring moment

The news has left many of us reeling. Standing in Donegall Street, some tell how they must leave early for England. Others tell of a house without decorations and an empty fridge, because they should have been sharing Christmas with grandchildren across the water. It would be easy for us to see this Christmas making a miserable end to a miserable year.  

Where in the gloom of the shortest days is inspiration to be found? And then, in the post office queue, gales of laughter over a story told or a joke shared.

That’s what it is. In our country, when things get harder, our humour gets better. We will find the funny side in the darkest of moments. This is what carried us through the worst days of the Troubles. And this is what will carry us through our current challenges…

When the rain runs down the back of my Black Santa’s cloak, there will always be someone to crack a joke. Because the business of caring about other people doesn’t always have to be done seriously. Caring with a smile. Giving with a grin. These are the gifts we are called first to give for Christmas 2020.

After all, whose joke was it that the shepherds would find a new born king, not in a palace, but in a cow byre, asleep not in a cot, but in a manger? 

Dean Stephen Forde with the Bishop of Connor, the Rt Rev George Davison, centre, and the Bishop of Down and Dromore, the Very Rev David McClay, right.

December 22 – Digital Christmas

News of the variant Covid virus has caused anxiety for everyone with two days left to Christmas. On Tuesday the sun was shining from a clear blue sky, but Donegall Street was quieter…

As I stand in Donegall Street with extra Covid precautions in place, I know how much others will depend on the funds that can be gathered by the Black Santa Appeal in these final days before Christmas.

Dean Crooks, the first Black Santa, braved the Christmas bomb scares of Belfast in the 1970s. Surely we too can do out bit 44 years later. But how?

Digitally! This year you can donate to Black Santa on line. There is an entire website devoted to Belfast’s Black Santa,  with powerful accounts of the difference the Black Santa Appeal makes to our local charities.

This year we will all be embracing a digital Christmas, from the presents we have ordered, to groceries delivered to our door, to Christmas Day video calls to family members stuck far from home. So why not add a digital donation to Black Santa to your Christmas List for 2020?

Dec 24th – Thank you for the positives

For the first days of this year’s Black Santa Sit-out, the rain fell steadily. But since the weekend, clouds have parted, and a winter sun has brightened up Donegall Street.

For many of us 2020 has been a grim year… Some will wonder how we will manage the restrictions ahead. Others fear for their businesses or jobs. All of us worry about our mental wellbeing. Does Christmas 2020 offer any break in the clouds?

Today is Christmas Eve. For children everywhere there is just one sleep more until the excitement of dreamed for presents delivered by ‘Red Santa.’ For myself as Black Santa, Christmas Eve is also a climax to the week-long ‘Sit-out that Helps Out.’

Thanks must go to each person who has donated to this year’s Black Santa … For every child Christmas is about the power of hope…

The gift of a vaccine. The generosity of carers who will not give up. The resilience of our human spirit in the face of adversity. The giving of pennies that makes possible amazing work by a myriad of charities.

The sit-out nearing an end on Christmas Eve. Dean Stephen Forde and Dean’s Vicar, the Rev Canon Mark Niblock.

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