While Black Santa’s helpers tally up the funds donated both on the steps of Belfast Cathedral and online in the days before Christmas, we look back on Dean Stephen Forde’s experiences during the 2022 Sit-out.
The Dean, who was taking part in his fifth annual sit-out for charities, recorded the events of each day in his Black Santa Diary, published daily in the Belfast Telegraph.
Monday December 19
Christmas wouldn’t be the same without Bing Crosby singing I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. Over the past week, we all got used to freezing temperatures.
As I prepare for my fifth Black Santa Sit-out on the steps of Belfast Cathedral, I have unpacked the thermal layers and my new set of hand knitted black socks. And I have dusted off the trademark black cloak which gives Black Santa his Belfast name.
I just hope that all these layers will keep me warm for the six days of the 2022 Black Santa Sit-out, from Monday to Saturday.
But any cold or discomfort that I or my helpers feel, as we welcome donations from those making their way along Donegall Street, will be nothing to the cold that many people are facing in these most difficult of days. This year the Black Santa Appeal has a special focus on supporting those smaller local charities, right across Northern Ireland, who are on the front line of giving direct help to people struggling most with the ‘Cost of Living Crisis.’
Earlier in the year people had to choose between ‘eating and heating.’ Now they find that they cannot afford to do either. Forty-six years after Dean Sammy Crooks started the first Christmas Sit-out, the need is as great as any across those decades.
Nothing will warm my heart (if not my feet) more than the generosity of each person who has a bit to spare, giving for those who have nothing left at the end of every week. Because the Black Santa challenge for 2022 is as great as the needs to be met. Can we raise over £150,000 in the six days of this year’s Sit-out? Only the people of this city and province can give the answer!
Tuesday December 20
“It never rains but it pours.” On the first day of the 2022 Black Santa Sit-Out at St Anne’s Cathedral, the outside temperature had jumped by 10 degrees from the freezing conditions of the days before. But with the warmer weather, it started to rain.
Just as well, then, that Black Santa and his helpers have a brand-new gazebo to keep them dry. However, much more welcoming on the first day of the sit-out was the encouragement given by those who called by to offer their support. At one point, three bishops, past and present, were helping the dean. Also lending a hand was the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Tina Black.
The mayor not only made a donation on behalf of the Lord Mayor’s Office, but took time to be fitted out with a Black Santa cloak and receive donations into the barrel from members of the public.
The Lord Lieutenant and her staff also delivered the collection received at the Lieutenancy Carol Service, held last week at St Mary’s on Chapel Lane in the heart of Belfast. Further colour was added by the staff of Christian Aid, whose bright red hoodies are a reflection of the parched red soil in the drought- stricken communities of the Horn of Africa, which Christian Aid is supporting.
With press photographers and TV interviews, the 2022 appeal is well and truly launched. What remains over the next six days, whatever the weather, is to tap into the generosity of the people of Belfast and far beyond, to meet that target of £150,000 raised.
Because the challenge facing the Dean of Belfast is nothing compared to the challenges faced every day by those people who will be helped by the charities that Black Santa supports.
Wednesday December 21
For Christmas 2022 we have all longed for a return to normal, a sign in the window that says Business as Usual. Across the city of Belfast and in cities and towns around the province there is much that looks like ‘business as usual.’ City centre streets are busy with shoppers. And with the return of school nativity plays and church carol services it is easy to fall into familiar ways.
But look a little closer and something is different this year. The cost of living crisis causes us to be cautious. The tills are ringing and people are giving to charities, but cautiously. And who can blame such caution? Heating costs and food bills have soared. The future looks uncertain. And many people are afraid of what that future may hold.
It is why, the unusual stands out for me as Belfast’s Black Santa. The generosity of a school, like Orangefield Primary School, whose P6 teacher and pupils called with Black Santa to give the entire collection from their school carol service, or BRA whose Christmas concert at the Cathedral will also see Black Santa present and in receipt of parents’ donations.
Also out of the ordinary has been a visit to Black Santa by Steve Baker, Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office. Out of a busy schedule, he gave time to wrap up in a Black Santa cloak and join in thanking those who were placing their money into the familiar barrel.
Because it is the importance of giving that lies at the very heart of Christmas. Giving by those who have something.
Thursday December 22
The winter solstice is the darkest time of the year. It is something which I notice particularly when standing in Donegall Street as Belfast’s Black Santa.
Yet today, the day after the winter solstice, daylight will be just a few minutes longer than it was yesterday. Although, with Christmas lights shining and blazing shop windows enticing us to buy that last Christmas bargain, it will be a few weeks yet until we realise that the days are actually lengthening.
For many people, hope is also in very short supply. If you are struggling to pay electricity bills, you will be turning out the lights, and sitting in the gloom. And what if you are out on the streets? The cold of these past weeks made sleep on frost frozen pavements almost impossible.
For me, as Black Santa, it is not just receiving the gifts of money, large or small, that matters. It is the gift of hope which every donation made delivers into people’s own darkness.
The charities which Black Santa will support this coming year are charities which offer the hope of warm food, practical advice, the time to listen attentively, or friendship where friendship has been lacking.
Hope not a vague concept. Hope is the difference between despair and a future, and sometimes hope is the difference between life and death.
Christmas matters, because Christmas, at the turning of the winter solstice, is when hope is born again. It is born in the natural world. It is born out of a faith rekindled in carols and candlelight. It is born out of the giving of gifts to the people we care about, and for people we may never meet. Because, surely it is with hope that lives are turned around?
Friday December 23
People sometimes ask me did I know that being Black Santa was part of the job of being Dean of Belfast. As the fifth Dean since 1976, I had a good idea that that the week before Christmas would mean standing on the Cathedral steps in Donegall Street.
But I did not realise how important the role of Black Santa is to the wider community, and how loved across the generations. Yesterday, I was even given my very own paper model of Black Santa, complete with an umbrella for the rain, a black cloak to keep warm, and a red nose cloak for the cold weather!
Whether it is children with their bags of coins, taxi drivers or Porche drivers with £20 notes, or the passer-by who quietly hands over a bundle of cash, people know that the Black Santa Appeal is a Christmas tradition to which they want to give generously.
And when I began as Dean, I did not fully understand the impact which our Black Santa grants make to so many small and local charities.
However, as I watch the video clips from charities that we supported last year, I get a powerful sense of the passion, and drive, and commitment of those who give of their time freely to make real differences in many very difficult situations.
If Christmas is about anything that matters, it is about giving. We do express this in the presents that we give to one another on Christmas Day. Even preparing Christmas dinner for extended family, or friends, is also about giving away our time and our talents.
But there is something more, something deeper. This happens when we give to those we do not know, people who will have no opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to us, because the gift we gave was anonymous. I think there is a phrase which might sum this up: ‘Giving for Good.’ Perhaps this is why Belfast’s Black Santa has such an enduring appeal.
However, to hit our target we still have a way to go over the next two days. So in all our giving this Christmas, let us be ‘Giving for Good,’ however it is we give.
Saturday December 24
It is Christmas Eve. For many children across the land, tonight will be the last sleep before red Santa delivers much hoped-for presents. Some of those children will follow the progress of his mystical sleigh on tablets and computers, the science of the internet combining with the wonder of dreams.
For Belfast’s Black Santa, it is also the last day of this year’s 2022 Sit-out.
From 9.30am until 4pm, Black Santa will be on the steps of St Anne’s Cathedral in Donegall Street, collecting from last-minute shoppers, and those who have come into the city centre to soak up the “’city vibe.’
Later, there will be familiar Christmas traditions to be followed, after interruption caused by two years of Covid-19. For myself as Black Santa and Dean, there will be the wonder of the Cathedral’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols with the St Anne’s Cathedral Choir at 8pm, and then the First Communion of Christmas. Each service held in anticipation of a packed cathedral. And each in preparation for the Festival Service of Christmas morning
But in today’s world, and in our community, there are many people for whom Christmas will not feel familiar or comfortable. Some will be alone, with only the silence for company. Some will know family, not as a place of warmth and welcome, but of rejection or pain. Some will feel more comfortable to be apart from those whose violence they have known too well. Some will be cold, unable to feed the meter for extra heat on Christmas Day. Some will be far, far away from home and family and the familiar, as those who are refugees in our country, perhaps present but unseen.
Across our province, at Christmas and on every other day, there are individuals and charities who are passionate about bringing hope and change, care and love, wherever these are lacking.
These are the people and the organisations which each year the Black Santa Appeal champions through the generosity and support of every individual and organisation who has made a donation.
Out of darkness, light. Out of despair, hope. Out of loneliness, companionship. Out of the gloom, the joy and peace and presence of Christmas.
Donations to Black Santa can still be made online at www.belfastblacksanta.org.