For many children, ‘no crib for a bed’ is more than a line in a carol… it’s a fact of life

In Britain today, almost a million children lack a suitable place to sleep at night, says Andrew Tremlett, the Dean of St Paul’s – which is why I’m supporting ‘The Independent’ in its bid to help provide 500 beds before Christmas

Monday 18 December 2023 18:30 GMT
Zarach, a Leeds-based charity, is providing beds to children who would otherwise sleep on the floor this Christmas
Zarach, a Leeds-based charity, is providing beds to children who would otherwise sleep on the floor this Christmas (iStock)

At its heart, the Christmas story is about a child born away from home, with nowhere to lay his head. A shocking recent report from the children’s charity Barnardo’s, entitled “No Crib for a Bed”, spells out the crisis affecting some 849,000 young people in Britain today – some 11 per cent in total – who do not have a satisfactory place to sleep at night.

By throwing a spotlight on “bed poverty” in Britain, Barnardo’s has also highlighted the long-term impact of the multiple pressures being faced by families across the nation: the cost of living crisis; energy poverty and health inequalities, to name but three. Each will have a lasting effect on children growing up.

Without wanting to make a political point out of the Nativity story, the life that Jesus was born into bore the hallmarks of the realities that many young people experience today, both in the land we dare to call “Holy”, as well as much closer to home.

It is why the report by Barnado’s is so welcome, and why the charitable efforts of Zarach – a Leeds-based operation providing beds to children who would otherwise sleep on the floor – are supported whole-heartedly by The Independent. This newspaper is fully behind Zarach’s Christmas campaign to provide 500 beds for the most vulnerable children in our society – and to end bed poverty in Britain for good.

So far, Independent readers have raised more than £62,000, and the appeal is two-thirds of the way to reaching its target just one week after launching. As a result of your generosity, so far nearly 350 children will be given a bed this Christmas. We will gratefully receive all donations, however modest.

For what better time for action in the here-and-now than Christmas, when we are reminded of the birth of the child of Bethlehem – for whom there was no crib for a bed – when we sing “Away in a Manger”?

Christians are often told that religion and politics shouldn’t mix. That somehow the place of faith should be in the privacy of the home, or indeed restricted to the privacy of conscience.

But the Christmas story is not about Jesus being born in an idyllic setting or fairytale landscape. Rather, Bethlehem in Jesus’s day was a town far removed from tinsel and twinkling lights, one located in the province of Judea, a vassal state of the Roman Empire; the census of governor Quirinius triggered a revolt.

There is another Christmas carol that reminds me how harsh realities have a way of intruding into festive scenes – and how even our most cherished stories, those infused with awe and wonder, have a way of connecting with the harsh realities of modern, everyday life: “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.

In December 1865, the Reverend Phillips Brooks – the pastor who, earlier that same year, had spoken at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral service – was travelling around the Middle East while on a sabbatical from his church ministry in Philadelphia.

After visiting Bethlehem, he wrote to his father about the “good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine. The great church of the Nativity is its most prominent object; it is shared by the Greeks, Latins and Armenians, and each church has a convent attached to it. Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star… We went to bed very tired…”

Rev Brooks was just 30 at the time, but was already establishing himself as a fine speaker, being invited to preach both at Westminster Abbey (where he is commemorated in St Margaret’s Church) and before Queen Victoria in Windsor. Elected as Bishop of Massachusetts, he became a prominent anti-slavery campaigner.

But his lasting memorial is a poem he penned for the Sunday School of Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, a year or two after his return from the Middle East.

O little town of Bethlehem,

How still we see thee lie;

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light;

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee to-night.

Bethlehem today offers a very different scene to the one imagined by Rev Brooks. The ancient church is still there – the oldest, continuously used Christian place of worship in the Holy Land – and is still shared by the “Greeks” (Orthodox), “Latins” (Catholics) and “Armenians” (Apostolic).

Zarach is aiming to provide 500 beds – complete with toys and pyjamas – to children this Christmas
Zarach is aiming to provide 500 beds – complete with toys and pyjamas – to children this Christmas (Zarach)

Some weeks ago, in the aftermath of Hamas’s attacks and Israel’s ground offensive against Gaza, the heads of the churches in Jerusalem issued an instruction cancelling the public celebration of Christmas, with its lights, parties and festivities.

Instead, they encouraged the faithful to direct their prayers towards those impacted by the current war in Gaza, and to donate towards the relief of their suffering.

Ultimately, I don’t think what Rev Brooks penned for his Sunday School in Philadelphia was very far from the mark – and has much to teach us today.

O holy Child of Bethlehem

Descend to us, we pray

Cast out our sin and enter in

Be born to us today.

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell

O come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Emmanuel.

When faced with harsh realities – of war, of poverty – we can pray… and give whatever we can.

The Very Rev Andrew Tremlett is Dean of St Paul’s

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