First person: 'I spend Christmas Day helping others'

Annie Cook, 58
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The Independent Online

For the past 15 years, I've spent Christmas Day providing a free meal for those who would otherwise be alone. Most are elderly singles or couples who are frail and can't cook for themselves. Others are homeless, have mental disabilities, and occasionally there are younger people who have no family of their own.

Our guests are always delighted just to be together for the occasion – you can tell by the look on their faces. It's wonderful to have a chance simply to have a chat – some have had nobody to talk to for a very long time. There's one woman who does everything she can not to leave when the day is over, as she doesn't want to go back to an empty house.

Every year, we serve a Christmas lunch at the Salvation Army Belfast Temple. The church is always properly decorated with lovely table-centres and themed serviettes. For the main course we'll have turkey and ham with all the trimmings, and a traditional dessert. Afterwards, we provide a little entertainment – we all sing carols and some of the guests will do a solo. One man does a turn on his flute every year, and another recites poetry.

At 3pm, we all watch the Queen's Speech, with a cup of tea and a mince pie, then we give everyone a little present, which we all open together, before taking guests back home with a little parcel of food – a tin of soup or beans, maybe some mince pies; whatever we can get hold of. One year a local dairy company gave us a load of little yoghurts to distribute.

The idea for the lunch came in 1993, when my husband and I decided we'd like to do something for others at Christmas. We spoke to the officers in the Salvation Army corps, who were agreeable to the idea; at first we just catered for those who we knew to be on their own, and then social workers became aware of what we were doing and we would get referrals.

Now, we can cater for around 60 people. I send out letters to people with a wee reply slip, asking whether they'd like to join us that year, and whether they'll need transport or have any dietary requirements. Some people are so keen to come along that I get letters in October asking if they'll be invited for Christmas. I'll spend a couple of weeks co-ordinating transport and following up invitations. On Christmas Eve, myself and 12 to 15 volunteers start setting up tables and preparing for the cooking. Helpers will have started wrapping presents a week beforehand, so we'll gather these together, and start making the food parcels.

On the day, guests are invited to join us for a 10.30am service, or simply for the lunch at 12.30pm. If they choose to come in the morning, they'll be given a wee cup of tea and some shortbread and can sit and have a chat before the lunch starts.

Just seeing how happy this makes people is reward enough. I couldn't sit at home knowing people are lonely. I couldn't just ignore them.