An edited version of this article first appeared in The Guardian on Dec 26th, 2018.
’Twas Christmas day and the Evans family had decided that it was time they gave back to their community. Or rather I, the 2nd eldest, had decided we should. I was desperately in love with Jesus at the time and I decided my Lord and Saviour would want us to help the homeless on Christmas Day. I wanted Jesus to see I was the best of his many fans. He’d be like “Yeah, Pippa Evans. She is basically Jesus the 2nd!”
So on Dec 25th, 1997, my parents, my brother, Charlie, and I all went down to the soup kitchen. My naivety was high - fuelled by too many Christmas movies and that song from Bugsy Malone - and we walked into a reality that I was not ready for.
It was a big church hall - I had been a Brownie there. Not for long - it was one of those troupes that was run by a Brown Owl who felt small girls should learn how to use paper doilies to full effect rather than anything useful like plumbing or how to start a fire using only a flint and a rubber band. Not the happiest of memories.
The hall was decorated with some paper chains, a tree and lots of pictures of Jesus, in many of his life stages - Baby, Preacher, In Death, In Resurrection. Why are there never any pictures of the Carpenter? No one cares about trades anymore- just the sensational stuff.
A cassette tape of carols played. But not very loud. There was not much chat, I remember. Joy To The World felt ironic as it blasted out the BoomBox.
And then they were there - the guests. But it wasn’t anything like I had imagined. Not grateful, grubby faces of bearded rapscallions, holding bowls of soup and meekly thanking us, but instead whole families. People of no fixed abode, frustrated by their place in the world. Children filling their pockets with biscuits hoping no one was looking. An old man in a paper crown, swearing in the corner whilst eating stuffing balls.
And little 15 year old me, with my Reebok hat on, trying to look like Louise from Eternal, was struck by fear. This isn’t what I was promised. I have everything and they have nothing and now I have to look them in the eye and say Merry Christmas. It was my first confrontation with the unfairness of life and I didn’t want to see it.
My family got stuck in, dishing up and cleaning and chatting, but I just froze. Then, I did the only thing I could think of - I asked myself “What would Jesus Do?” and when the answer came “sit with the people and treat them as you would anyone else” I panicked and hid in the kitchen. I thought I was scared they might find out I was not like them, but actually I was scared that I might find out I was.
In the kitchen, Geraldine enlisted me with buttering bread and heating custard. She was a short, stout woman in her fifties. Geraldine was everything Victoria Wood had prepared me to find in a church hall, which was a great comfort to me. “Just serve the food and keep it coming. That’s all we ask of you. And don’t accept any tosh!” The only legitimate use of “tosh” I have ever heard.
Geraldine went to get something from the pantry, just as two men fell into the kitchen, arguing about something. Hearing the commotion, my dad followed behind them.
A word on my dad - he looks like Basil Fawlty and speaks like an American’s wet-dream of an Englishman. And so as it looked like a fight was about to break out, Dad stepped into the scene with a loud “Now look here!” and received a swing to the chops, which missed. Dad fell and a hole was ripped into his jumper as one of the chaps tried to catch him.
Geraldine appeared like a force of nature. “Get out of my kitchen! You can come back when you have sorted yourselves out. You ridiculous men!” They retreated, looking crestfallen.
She picked my Dad off the floor and as she brushed him down, I asked “How come you aren’t scared of anything?”
“Me?” Geraldine replied. “I was brought up by huskies.”
We finished our shift, thanked Geraldine and went back home, where an enormous Christmas Dinner was waiting for us. We all looked at it and felt sick. We had just come from school dinner portions and misery and now we were going to eat Goose and chocolate coins and unwrap all our presents.
It’s hard when you are confronted by your own assumptions about the world. By the realities which we can ignore from behind our curtains. At 15, I wasn’t quite able to look them in the eye yet, but it was a stepping stone to realising that perhaps I wasn’t the little saviour I wanted to appear to be.
I am no longer part of the Jesus gang, but I do think of him from time to time. Is it a Christmas I want to forget? A little. But it did teach me a great lesson - help others because you want to help, not because you want 5 stars from Jesus.
Improvised human woman.