Comfort of strangers

Generation gap; Stephanie Knell, 30, works for Crisis, and will be bringing festive cheer to the homeless in Bermondsey. So her mother,Rita Knell, 62, a retired teacher, will miss eating Christmas dinner with her yet again
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The Independent Culture
Stephanie

`I don't feel that I can fit into the family Christmas scenario at the moment'

I could be doing anything this Christmas: unblocking the portable toilet, shifting mattresses - we have 700 and they have to be lifted up during the day, an exhausting task - or helping on the clothing store.

It is quite magical: the guests come wanting a range of services and volunteers arrive to help meet their needs. We provide everything from dentistry to a massage. It's an amazing experience when these two very different groups meet together and learn. The atmosphere can be quite electric.

We have a carol service on Christmas morning. You can sing the words of any normal carol, but in the shelter they have a different poignancy. It can be almost tear-jerking, a sobering feeling with everybody caught in the moment. Both guests and volunteers will have memories of past family Christmases.

The first time, it was difficult to tell my mother that I wasn't coming home for Christmas. Everybody has this expectation that you should be there. It's a big step. Even married people with their own children go to their parents, but I'm branching out. I won't be with either my boyfriend or my family.

I'm sad that I'll miss out on home comforts - my mum's mince pies, big meals and log fires. I've so many special memories about Christmas: of rushing down and opening all my presents at about 2 o'clock in the morning. Once I was playing with a bike bell and woke my mum. She came down and told me off, but I was quite proud that I'd had a wild time, with wrapping paper everywhere. I wasn't at all worried. I suppose Mum wanted to be there when I opened the presents.

However, there's an expectation that every Christmas should have the same structure and always fit into it. But I don't feel that I can fit into the family/Christmas tree scenario at the moment. You shouldn't try to force it because that's when Christmas doesn't work. In the future, people will create lots of different Christmases and won't feel obliged to stay in Britain and follow traditions.

What I love about the "London Open Christmas" is that you're doing something for people, and there's a very real need. I'm better when I'm giving than if I'm receiving.

When the guests arrive they feel tired and cold and hungry. It is wonderful to see them change with a new haircut, a new set of clothes, a shower - a new person with a lot more dignity, self respect. They can even go for a job because they feel and look a neater person. They have hope to start the New Year - to me that's the magic of Christmas n

Rita

`I must remember that she's got her own life to live - I can't hang on to her for too long'

Christmas knits the community together, with everybody wishing each other a happy time. In a village, like the one I grew up in, lots of people would make the effort to go to church. You meet saying you'll see each other at such and such an event and really mean it. So I was disappointed when first told me that she wasn't coming home for Christmas; it's a special time, and I wouldn't have thought of spending it anywhere else than with the family.

When I was a child, we were a close-knit family and nobody would have dreamt of missing out. We'd lay an enormous table for tea because the neighbours and other friends would visit. My mother would have been cooking for weeks on rations to provide this fantastic spread. The adults would play cards and have drinks around a roaring fire, and us children would lie doggo and keep out of the way hoping that nobody would notice that we hadn't yet gone to bed. Our aim was to stay up till midnight, and we'd hide round the back of the settee - although we were already half asleep.

I'll miss - especially that she won't be with us to share in all the fun, food and games. We play Balderdash, where you make up meanings to words. She's excellent at it and would have had us all in stitches. But I must remember that she's got her own life to live - I can't hang on to her for too long.

Last year, was in Zimbabwe helping on an aid project. Her sister went out a few days before Christmas with a rucksack full of presents. It was very difficult shopping for presents when there was little space or spare weight in in the rucksack. So I sent shampoo and bath foam so could clean up after the drought conditions she'd been in. Clean knickers were also very much appreciated.

A friend used to be a co-ordinator for social services in Somerset and was involved with lots of mental hospitals. He would dress up as Father Christmas, and when was younger she used to go and help give out the presents. I think she saw how much more worthwhile Christmas could be.

I'm very proud that shows compassion and consideration for the less fortunate. It's so lacking in today's "me" society, where what "I" want matters rather than what anybody else wants. I brought her up to think of other people; it's just a shame it means we won't be together this Christmas

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