WHEN Charles Dickens wrote about Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, he was undoubtedly reflecting on the two sides of human nature, as well as Christmas.
This was brought home to me when hearing the horrendous story of a man in his late 70s, collapsed in a street in broad daylight and left for five hours while people walked round him on the pavement in the coldest winter for two decades. What on earth were people thinking of, and what sort of world are we creating?
There is no doubt that Christmas has become so commercialised and so overdone that its true meaning has become almost lost beneath the welter of fairy lights, tinsel and extravagant presents – and what A S J Tessimond, in his poem about Christmas, describes as "the tinned milk of human kindness" tinkling from our radios and jollying us along on television.
But there is another side to Christmas. As in many years past, there will be a large number of lonely people for whom Christmas will bring only heartache. The happiness of other people at this time, genuine or perceived, and the thought of families getting together to celebrate, serve only to make the loneliness worse for some. So I would like to tell you how kindness and thoughtfulness can change that picture and bring a little light and warmth into the lives of others.
Gloria Stewart is a constituent of mine. She is herself disabled, having suffered a number of small strokes. When attending a hospital outpatients' appointment in November 2008, she was chatting with others and asked if they were looking forward to Christmas. Astonishingly, they were not. One lady told her of the Christmas she had taken a flask and a packet of biscuits to bed for the day, and others said how much they were dreading the loneliness.
Gloria's first thought was that she could invite someone who was lonely or homeless into her own home for Christmas dinner. She then got to thinking about how she might do something on a grander scale and whether there might be others in the community who would join her in reaching out to those fearing loneliness and isolation. Although part of a loving family herself, Gloria understood how loneliness and homelessness could easily happen to any of us. Undaunted, she set about publicising her idea which she called "Mrs Christmas" in the hope of raising sufficient funds to provide a lunch and a little cheer for those who would otherwise have nothing to look forward to. Gloria wanted to show that people care – and care they did.
Local people rose to the challenge – from donations to ensure that there were funds to make it work, through to those willing to provide a venue, food, waitressing and transport services. It was a massive logistical task – Gloria likened it to organising a wedding in five weeks, but without any money.
But, together with her army of volunteers, Gloria was able to pull it off. She approached butchers, a local delicatessen, and other businesses to donate the food and little extras, and sent out hundreds of letters asking for a donation. That's when I first heard about her venture. People in the constituency gave generously and Gloria's dream finally came true when, just before Christmas 2008, 87 people sat down to enjoy their lunch in the Civil Service Club who had provided the venue free of charge.
Following the success, word got round and the number swelled to over 280 people last year, enjoying a festive lunch in the unlikely but extremely comfortable surroundings of Owlerton Stadium Speedway and Dog Racing Track – a larger venue again offered free.
This year Gloria decided to restrict the number to the 200 who will again be making their way to Owlerton Stadium to be welcomed with a glass of sherry before sitting down to a full Christmas lunch, with wine and a present.
As Gloria's project is not a charitable organisation, no money can be carried forward so any funds left over are used to help HARC (Homeless and Rootless at Christmas), a project working in the city of Sheffield.
Let's hope that Hark the Herald Angels Sing, ringing out from loudspeakers and PA systems across our shopping malls, might remind people that having fun and putting in a bit of effort to make life better for others can go hand in hand. What cheers me most is knowing there are Gloria Stewarts all across our country, men and women going the extra mile and welcoming people into their homes on Christmas Day.
May these examples of the true spirit of Christmas warm not just the hearts of those embraced by such events but the hearts of those who walked past the stricken pensioner in the street – or for that matter those of us who, from time to time, lapse into self-indulgence and feel sorry for ourselves!
So on Christmas Day, let's lift our glasses to all those who are giving time, commitment and caring for strangers. For one day, we may ourselves be in need of just such help.
David Blunkett held three Cabinet posts in tony Blair's government and is the Labour MP for Sheffeld Brightside and Hillsborough.