YOU don’t have to believe in a god or follow a faith to share in the season of goodwill at Christmas.
Michael O’Brien and his friends in the Cork Humanists group are still trying to make the festive season a little merrier for those in need.
“We should think outside of the box when it comes to goodwill for Christmas,” Michael says. “I don’t decorate my home for Christmas, I give the money to charity instead.”
He and his friends have been holding fund-raising Christmas events for the Penny Dinners charity in Cork city for a few years now. Their 2017 event Cork takes place on Wednesday, December 13.
“It is a bit of a Christmas celebration at one of our members’ houses, and we gather everything in one place, take some photos and then load up a Jeep with the donations and bring them down to Penny Dinners when they open,” Michael explains.
Humanists try to live their lives based on “reason and humanity,” and most of them reject the existence of a God or the idea of an after-life.
“We believe that you can be good without believing in God,” Michael says.
Caitriona Twomey of Penny Dinners appreciates the group’s annual donations.
“The Humanists come here to help us quite a bit, and I have found them all to be full of compassion and love,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like we should all talk about humanity more often, like the Humanists do.”
When I spoke to Caitriona, she was just back from a long trip to Dublin with the young homeless members of Cork’s High Hopes Choir. The charity is dedicated to serving hot food to the city’s cold and hungry and her eyes light up with joy talking about people’s Christmas contributions.
“Atheists, Muslims, Hindus, people of all different religions and none donate to us; it just goes to show you that whether you have a religion or whether you don’t, if you have a good heart you are going to give,” Caitriona says.
And it’s not just the donors. The charity’s volunteers in the kitchen also belong to different religions and races.
“Religion is important to the individual, but it doesn’t define you,” Caitriona says.
Michael grew up in a Roman Catholic household, and his mum had a difficult time coming to terms with her son’s shift towards atheism.
“My mum had the hardest time with it because she was so invested in the idea of an after-life and meeting loved ones,” Michael says.
His parents respected their son’s decision in the end.
Michael counts lack of education and information on Humanism as the reason for some common misconceptions about his group.
“If there is any misconception about Humanists, there is no need for it,” Caitriona says.
Michael shuts down the idea that stereotypes people of no faith as “Christmas-haters”.
“I don’t have a problem with Christmas so long as it isn’t used to discriminate against other people,” he says
“The only issue around it is that since there are other cultures, we shouldn’t exclude everybody else; we should consider that maybe the person in the supermarket we are saying ‘Happy Christmas’ to isn’t a Christian.”
Cork Humanists have non-atheist members in their group as well.
“Atheism is not the focus of our group, and we don’t really talk about it in our meetings as we don’t want to push any religion,” he says.
Michael sends a message of invitation to all people of Cork to gift a smile to the faces of the city’s homeless and lonely this Christmas.
“Give some of your time and money to Cork Penny Dinners. the Simon Community or your old neighbours who don’t have anyone to care for them during Christmas,” he says.
Ireland ranks ninth in the list of the most generous countries in the world and is second in Europe after the UK, according to Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index for 2016.
Caitriona has a Christmas message for the people of Cork — one of love and gratitude.
“Thank-you for keeping our doors open; there is comfort in knowing that we can keep looking after people and make sure that they have some place to come to on Christmas Day.”
Caitriona shows me a video of Cork High Hopes Choir’s latest performance in Dublin with a motherly pride in her eyes.
“See how beautiful they sing,” she says. The choir gave an emotional performance in the EU earlier this year to raise awareness about poverty and homelessness.
One in three people going through homelessness in Ireland are children.
“While children are looking at toys and stuff for Christmas, some children dream of having their own bed to sleep in on Christmas night,” Caitriona says.
She is happy with the food hamper donations to Penny Dinners so far, but says that it takes a considerable amount of effort to save the day for so many.
“I know Christmas is only one day but to prevent that one day from being a nightmare for people, we have a lot of planning to do,” she says.
“I am hurt by the despair that I see, and sometimes we all get exhausted, but when we see different people coming in bringing us things then I feel like maybe not all is lost.”