When we think of Christmas, we all have our own unique memories or ideas that come to mind.
For some of us, nothing defines Christmas more than tucking into a mouth-watering feast of turkey and ham with all the trimmings, surrounded by friends and family. While for others, what stands out most is seeing little faces light up as they tear away the wrapping paper from presents beneath the tree.
For hundreds of Cork people, however, it doesn’t truly feel like Christmas until one major event well after the big day itself on December 25th. One such person is Marjorie Clohessy, who has been celebrating Cork Simon’s Women’s Little Christmas for over 15 years, and has been a key member of the event’s organising committee for much of that time.
“My mother’s always taken a table at the Women’s Little Christmas lunch for Cork Simon, every year without fail,” Marjorie explains. “I’d always go with her too, so as a family we’ve been supporters for over 15 years now. I suppose we started attending because it’s in aid of such a fantastic cause, but we stayed because it’s also just a really fun event and we look forward to the sense of occasion each year. It’s all about women celebrating women, really. It’s a chance to enjoy each other’s company and really let our hair down, which too many women — especially mothers — don’t get to do on Christmas Day itself.”
While giving Irish mammies a break after they’ve often taken on the bulk of the cooking and hosting duties over the festive holidays is a huge part of what Women’s Little Christmas is all about, Marjorie says what’s most important to the organisers and guests is actually supporting women who are much less fortunate.
“Women’s Little Christmas is one of Cork Simon’s main fundraisers of the year, and all the money raised is specifically donated to their women's services across the city,” she proudly explains. “I think it just shows how invaluable Cork Simon’s services are, that so many people want to support them. I mean, we had about 400 people attending the Women’s Little Christmas lunch each year pre-Covid, which we’ve since scaled down for health and safety reasons. Even so, we’ll have almost 300 people at our lunch in the Maryborough Hotel this year, and all of them are buying tickets and donating to Cork Simon on the day because they recognise what a fantastic cause it is.”
These donations are vital to charities like Cork Simon year-round, but are more important than ever during the Christmas period.
“Unfortunately for a lot of people who use our services, both men and women, Christmas can be a really triggering time of year,” admits Teresa McCarthy, who has almost 14 years of experience with Cork Simon. She currently works in theirprogramme, which aims to help stabilise recovering addicts who are experiencing homelessness.
“A lot of the people we help at Cork Simon would tell you that they just want Christmas to be over as quickly as possible,” she shares. “For most people, Christmas is a really nice time to be around family and to celebrate, but for our service users it's just a reminder of all the things they don’t have or everything they have lost. Many of our service users might not have any sort of relationship with their families anymore, and so these holidays are a reminder that they can't be at home or they can't be around their loved ones, which can be very difficult.”
Due to her close involvement in looking after the needs of women in particular who use Cork Simon’s services, Teresa has seen some unbelievably heartbreaking scenes. “For women in our services who have children that are in care or that they don’t have custody of for whatever reason, Christmas is really tough. To not be with their children, or to only have a short visit with them and then walk away, come back and be in services is so hard for them — all they want is to be at home in their own house and have a Christmas tree up and be opening the presents with their kids. It’s a really heavy thing to experience, Christmas is probably the worst day of the year for many of our service users honestly.”
Despite the many hurdles that have to be faced on the day, Teresa explains that Cork Simon do their best to still bring some joy to people using their services come December 25th. “We give all of them a Christmas present, we put together a special hamper and leave it outside their doors so that they can wake up to a surprise on Christmas morning. We also decorate the place really nicely, and we have our own big Christmas dinner. Some people like to gather together like that, they feel better by being around others, but others might prefer to just withdraw and get through the day on their own.”
While these enormous efforts from the Cork Simon staff go a long way in making Christmas bearable for people using their services, it’s not the only thing that helps. “Throughout Christmas week we have some great volunteers that come in. Many of them give up their Christmas Day, but also Christmas Eve or St Stephen’s Day or New Year’s Day. They all have their own reasons for volunteering, but a lot of the time they just want to give back and do something kind. The fact that they've done that really means a lot to our residents here in Cork Simon, they really appreciate how people give up their own time that they could have spent celebrating to help them instead.
“Every Christmas, we also get a lot of cards sent in from school children throughout Cork — just little notes wishing people in our services a Merry Christmas, or sometimes there's a lovely hand-drawn picture. Those small things can really bring some brightness to their day, to know that they’re being thought of by so many people.
“Those gestures mean so much, because if you speak to anybody that's gone through homelessness, they’ll tell you that they just feel unwanted or even invisible. People literally step over them most of the time — if they're begging or sleeping rough on the street, most people don't even acknowledge them. Or if they are acknowledged, it’s usually because people are horrified and quickly look the other way, as if this person is something to be scared of just because they’re homeless. It’s such a common experience for people using our services, that they feel unseen and unheard. So then to know that someone has thought of them this Christmas — whether it’s by giving up their time, donating money or sending cards and presents — means so much to them. It’s often the only time they feel acknowledged or cared for.”
Marjorie agrees that the people of Cork really can make a huge difference for those in need this Christmas. She’s seen countless numbers of them digging deep over the years to do just that by supporting the Women’s Little Christmas fundraiser. “Every year, once we start organising the lunch, all I need to do is say it’s in aid of Cork Simon and just like that, people consistently amaze me with how generous they are. Absolutely everyone — from the big names to the smaller businesses who are already paying crazily high rents in the city — shows us their support. They give us some fantastic prizes for our raffle each year, or they’ll be the first to pop something in to our donation boxes on the day. It’s incredible, the generosity of people across Cork, even while money is tight for so many at the minute.
“That’s really what makes the Women’s Little Christmas lunch such a special occasion, is how people rally together to make it a showstopper of an event that can raise as much money for Cork Simon as possible. From the Maryborough Hotel, who serve up a fabulous lunch for us, to the local businesses who’ve donated hugely generous prizes to our monster raffle this year, to the guests who buy our tickets and attend in high spirits — it’s just amazing! We even have some local celebrities supporting us this year — Finbar Wright is our guest speaker, while Helen Murphy of the viral Daily Diva Diary is our MC. It's going to be such a special event, we can’t wait!”
To find out more about the vital work that Cork Simon do, and about their Women’s Little Christmas event on January 7th 2023, visit www.corksimon.ie.