Gratitude and hope in the Black Santa Diaries

Tuesday January 4th 2022

Smiles from Dean Stephen Forde on the first day of the Black Santa Sit-out 2021.

Smiles from Dean Stephen Forde on the first day of the Black Santa Sit-out 2021.

You could be forgiven for thinking that when Dean Stephen Forde vacated the steps of St Anne’s on Christmas Eve, the annual Black Santa sit-out was over for another year.

But of course, it is a long way from being over. Right now, Black Santa’s band of dedicated helpers are counting the pennies and the pounds, the credit card donations and the online donations, to pull together the sum raised by the 2021 sit-out.

Traditionally, the monies donated to Black Santa are distributed to more than 200 charities at the Good Samaritans Service held in February. Last year, due to the pandemic, it was not possible to hand the cheques out in person and these instead were sent directly to the charities to support their vital work.

Despite ongoing Covid-19 and the emergence of the Omicron variant, the 2021 sit-out was a lively and busy one for Dean Forde, who shared his experiences on the steps each day in his Black Santa Diary, published daily by the Belfast Telegraph.

The impact of the pandemic on the finances of many charities and the Dean’s focus on the plight of refugees trying to rebuild their lives in Northern Ireland feature prominently. Each diary rings with hope and gratitude.

If you missed the diaries, or would like to re-read them, we share some of the Dean’s thoughts below – from the start to the end of the 2021 sit-out.

Donations to Black Santa can still be made online at

Monday December 13 2021

It is hard to believe that we are entering a second Christmas under the shadow of the Covid Pandemic. This year, as the 2021 Belfast Cathedral Black Santa Sit-out begins, I realise that former Deans of Belfast have carried this 45-year tradition through other dark times.

In 1976, when Dean Crooks first wrapped himself in the clergyman’s black cloak which gives the sit-out its distinctive name and stood on the steps of St Anne’s Cathedral, the city of Belfast and the province we call home faced some of the most violent days of the Troubles. Yet across the next two decades, until the dawning of a new hope with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, and in the following years, Deans of Belfast have benefited from the goodwill and generosity of people from every community to raise millions of pounds that have supported thousands of local charities.

This Christmas, I will continue that tradition, drawing on the generosity of individuals, organisations and companies, who want to give hope to the people in our community. These past twenty months of the Covid pandemic have placed unprecedented demands on our local charities. Yet the restrictions of the past year have made their fund raising incredibly difficult.

That’s why the support of everyone who can give matters so much. Every pound raised for Black Santa gets passed on to over 200 local charities. And this year some of those charities include organisations supporting Northern Ireland’s newest communities: People, who just like the baby Jesus, with Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt to escape King Herod’s violence, have found themselves made refugees.

For the next 13 days of the Black Santa Sit-out Appeal, let us all find that place of Christmas hope which outshines the darkness of the past 20 months.

Belfast's Lord Mayor Councillor Kate Nicholl takes a selfie with Dean Forde and his helpers, Bishop David McClay and Canon Mark Niblock on day one of the sit-out.

Belfast’s Lord Mayor Councillor Kate Nicholl takes a selfie with Dean Forde and his helpers, Bishop David McClay and Canon Mark Niblock on day one of the sit-out.

Tuesday December 14 2021

Monday was the first day of the 2021 Belfast Black Santa Sit-out at St Anne’s Cathedral. With eleven days between now and Christmas Eve, this will be longest sit-out I have done as Dean of Belfast over the past four years.

The first day of the sit-out can also be one of the busiest. The press photographers arrived early to take a range of shots with myself and Black Santa’s helpers, who included the Bishop of Down and Dromore, and the rector of Stranmillis. Soon after there were a number of radio and TV interviews to give.  

Highlights of the first day included the visit by the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Kate Nicholl, and ten ladies from the Footprints Women’s Centre at Colinmill near Dunmurry.

As a memento of her visit, the Mayor was presented with one of our trademark Black Santa beanie hats, embroidered by the Orchardville Works Social Enterprise Charity. The ladies from Footprints were also pleased to chat with the mayor around the cathedral’s impressive Christmas tree.

Each of these ladies has a story to tell, of arriving in Northern Ireland as a refugee from Syria, and other places of war and conflict. This year, from among the two hundred charities we hope to support, the Black Santa Appeal has a particular focus on those charities which are working with Northern Ireland’s newest communities.

Ten more days to go for the Black Santa Sit-out. I’m hoping that the weather remains mild. But most of all I’m hoping for a really generous response from the people of Belfast and far beyond. The only Christmas gift which Belfast’s Black Santa can give to charities which have faced incredible challenges this past year, is the gift of the donations which everyone places this year into the Black Santa barrel.

Wednesday December 15 2021

Artists, Bishops and the business community. No two days on the steps of Belfast Cathedral are the same for Black Santa. On Tuesday the sun shone from a crisp December sky. Fortified by a selection of sweets, I was joined for the morning session, not by one Bishop of Connor but by two.

The Bishop of Connor, the Rt Rev George Davison, with Dean Forde on day three of the sit-out.

The Bishop of Connor, the Rt Rev George Davison, with Dean Forde on day three of the sit-out.

The current Bishop of Connor, George Davison, is well schooled in the ways of Black Santa, having joined both the present and previous Dean on the cathedral steps over a number of years. And it was a joy to welcome the former Bishop of Connor, Alan Abernethy, to share in ‘the craic’ and in meeting the people of Belfast as each made their donation in cash or by card.

But on a bright morning, a group of artists painting opposite the cathedral caught my attention. They were members of the Dundonald Art Club. Despite the cold, each was making a watercolour of the cathedral. Every artist looks for a point of interest to enhance their painting. As the morning progressed, so did the addition of Black Santa and his helpers to the winter compositions of the cathedral. Scarcely were the paintings completed than the artists generously presented their morning’s work to be sold for the benefit of this year’s Black Santa appeal.

And finally the business community. This year, the Covid situation has meant that many company Christmas parties have been cancelled. Yet every cloud can have a silver lining. The staff of one company, Energia, decided that in place of their company party, they would make a donation to Black Santa. It was the chance for another photoshoot with a smiling Dean, grateful that every gift, large or small will add to the total, and so allow charities across the community to continue their vital work in the year to come.

Black Santa on canvas - thanks to members of Dundonald Art Club.

Black Santa on canvas – thanks to members of Dundonald Art Club.

Thursday December 16 2021

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Belfast Cathedral annual sit-out is the camaraderie shared between Black Santa with his helpers, and the Tumble Circus who set up their big top tent in Writers’ Square opposite the cathedral.

Throughout the morning, articulated lorries delivered poles and cables and canvas so that the big top could be erected in time for the first ‘socially distanced’ circus performance on Friday evening. Often the circus performers have joined Black Santa for an impromptu display on the cathedral steps. During the morning we had occasion to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the wife of one of Black Santa’s helpers. And the circus family took a pause from their tent building to join in. 

Somehow, the Black Santa Sit-out draws the very best from so many people, whether its bags of small coins, carefully collected by children, or a generous donation of bank notes handed from a car window, whether a wave from passing bus drivers, a donation from a busy taxi driver or city centre police offices cycling by.

Each gesture adds to the sense that Black Santa catches the imagination of people who want to make a difference. The past 20 months of the Covid Pandemic have been hard for everyone. This Christmas, many people want to do something which lightens the gloom, to give to others as a way of saying ‘we have got this far.’

Yet, as the Omicron variant takes hold, and threatens so much that has been achieved, that generosity of spirit is needed more than ever. Giving, whether in person or online, and volunteering, whether behind the scenes for the Black Santa Appeal, or to overcome the Christmas challenges posed by Covid, in these ways may we find the best of ourselves, fulfilling the promise of Christmas.

Friday December 17 2021

As the days countdown to Christmas, Donegall Street has been getting busier. People are hoping to make the best of this Christmas after the restrictions of last year. And many people have said “This is the first time I’ve travelled up to Belfast in months.”

Travel is a central part of the Christmas story. Joseph and Mary walked the ninety mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Eastern Magi travelled across desert wastes in search of the one “’born to be king.’ And following their departure, Mary and Joseph, with their newborn baby, were forced to flee King Herod’s violence, as refugees to Egypt.

When travel is by choice, it can be exciting and enjoyable. But when our journeys are forced, they can become a terrifying ordeal.

What does the word ‘refugee’ mean for any of us? Can we imagine, if in the middle of the night, we were forced to flee our home, our job, our family, taking only what we could carry on our back?

What if we had to walk for hundreds of miles through winter cold and rain? It is one thing to choose, as Black Santa, to stand in the cold of Donegall Street for the 11 days before Christmas, and this year the weather has been mild. But to flee, with small children, in fear of your life, and at the mercy of those who will profit from your misery, can we put ourselves in their shoes?

This year, among others, Black Santa will be supporting those local charities and community groups who are offering emotional support, practical help and a genuine welcome.

This Christmas as we walk through the streets of our city and towns to complete our Christmas shopping safely, will we also walk in the shoes of those who have walked to reach our communities?

Monday December 20 2021

After a busy Saturday on the steps of Belfast Cathedral, and a pause on Sunday for our Cathedral Services, Monday sees Black Santa returning to his post in Donegall Street. There are now just five more shopping days to go, with Christmas Day falling this year on Saturday.

For myself as Black Santa, the coming busy week will include recording for the Radio Ulster Morning Service, to be broadcast on Christmas Day. We will prepare for our two cathedral Carol Services on Thursday and Friday evenings, featuring carols sung by the wonderful cathedral choir. Not forgetting preparations for the First Eucharist of Christmas on Christmas Eve, and the Festival Service of Christmas Morning.

And to be Covid safe, the cathedral office staff will need to allocate a restricted number of seats for each of these services. No wonder people say “This is your busy time!”

And all this in addition to the 45-year tradition of the Dean of Belfast, with Black Santa’s helpers, standing on the cathedral steps as people make their donations to this year’s appeal.

Christmas is always about giving and sharing. As we worry about the impact of Covid on everyone’s lives, the people giving out the booster jabs are giving far and beyond what could be expected of them in the days before Christmas. And they are calling us to share in the responsibilities we have for each other.

In the same way, Black Santa can only share with local charities what the people of Belfast and beyond are willing to give.

Last week a grandmother brought her two grandchildren to visit Black Santa as darkness fell. Each placed coins from their pocket money into the barrel. “What matters most,” said Gran, “Is that they each learn how important it is to give!”

Thursday December 23 2021

The rain has arrived in Donegall Street, but it has not dampened the spirits. People still have their last minute Christmas presents to buy. Daughters and sons now back home are having lunch (if Mum is paying) or a coffee (if they are paying), and calling with Black Santa, just as they used to when they were younger.

And new generations are being introduced to a 45-year old tradition, as they empty the bags of pennies they have collected all year into the Black Santa barrel.

But something is different. The footfall in Donegall Street is definitely quieter. Many of those who work in city centre offices have been working from home. And in the evenings, the cafes and restaurants around the cathedral are much less busy than they would have hoped for.

There is no doubt that Covid is taking its toll on a second Christmas. It will mean that the demands placed on those charities which Black Santa supports will be greater than ever for 2022.

And if the need is greater, will this year’s Black Santa Appeal have the same resources as last year, or not? For some people, the past 20 months have meant more money has been saved with reduced commuting costs, or cancelled holidays. If some of us have more money saved, could we choose to give that bit more, on line or in person, so that Black Santa, has more to give away?

The Brass Quintet of the Ulster Youth Orchestra keeping spirits up on the steps on December 23.

The Brass Quintet of the Ulster Youth Orchestra keeping spirits up on the steps on December 23.

Today, in the rain, the Brass Quintet of the Ulster Youth Orchestra played Christmas music on the cathedral steps, lifting the spirits of everyone who passed by. The Youth Orchestra gives young people from every background the chance to play music to the highest standards. It is one of the charities supported by Black Santa.

At Christmas, Black Santa, makes a difference whenever he is given that helping hand.

Christmas Eve Friday December 24 2021

An early Christmas Eve soggy Black Santa selfie!

An early Christmas Eve soggy Black Santa selfie!

Christmas Eve! We have reached the last day of the 2021 Black Santa Sit-out. For me as Black Santa, the final day on the cathedral steps will end about four o’clock. But the day does not end then.

In the evening, we will have our Covid-safe Cathedral Carol Service with the cathedral choir singing music, both new and familiar. Later still, our First Communion of Christmas, before Black Santa catches a few hours of sleep, while watching out for his ‘red’ counterpart on the way home. And on Christmas morning, a radio broadcast and then Choral Eucharist, all before lunch!

We each have our own Christmas traditions. For some it is the gathering of families, although for a second Covid year we must be careful of numbers, watch out for those who are older, and keep the windows open! For others Christmas will be spent more quietly, perhaps alone, whether by choice or by circumstance.

For those who are new to our shores as refugees like Jesus, our Christmas traditions may be strange, different to the traditions of warmer climates and different histories. For others, Christmas Day will raise the same challenges as the day before and the day after, of living with disability or emotional pain or enduring grief.

The Black Santa Appeal, through each of the charities it supports, makes a Christmas difference across the whole of the year. The giving of money and time volunteered by all who have supported Black Santa this year, does tell that one baby born over two thousand years ago, in a stable far away, has changed the world for ever.

In giving thanks for generosity shown in 2021, even in the face of Covid, may everyone find peace and care in this year’s Christmas.

Artistes from the Tumble Circus in Writers' Square with Black Santa a colourful merry Christmas.

Artistes from the Tumble Circus in Writers’ Square with Black Santa a colourful merry Christmas.

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