Louise Morse, Media and External Relations Manager at Pilgrims' Friend Society, shares why being together can be the greatest gift at Christmas.

Unless you are one of those people who make a list and stock Christmas gifts the whole year round, like the rest of us you will worry in the next few weeks over what to get for your relatives and friends, particularly those whose preferences you don’t know because
you don’t see them very often. Yet the best gift of all, the one that literally changes lives, is the simplest. And, like an expensive  fragrance, its effects last for a long time. I’ll come to it later.

Christmas can be the best of times and the worst of times (with apologies to Charles Dickens). For those who love it all – the candlelit services, the Christmas dinner, the gifts, the coming together and so on, it’s the best of times. We can almost hear the ‘angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold’. One of the blessings of Christmas is that it magnifies our sense of belonging, both with our
families and friends and our churches. The smiles and hugs as we meet tell us that we are valued and accepted. 

But for those who are lonely it is the worst of times. Some of the saddest stories about loneliness crop up at Christmas time. For example, Edith, an 89-year-old widow who spent most of Christmas Day listening to the message on the answerphone that had been left by her husband who had died months earlier. Then there was the 94-year-old who spent Christmas with his daughter’s family but was devastated on New Year’s Eve. His wife had died four years before and they had always seen in the New Year in together. ‘Oh, the loneliness, the loneliness,’ he told a BBC interviewer.

For close-knit couples who have lived most of their lives together, the passing of one of them is like tearing away a part of the soul, and it isn’t helped when people avoid visiting because they don’t know what to say. A pastor in a church in Wales said that many in church congregations believe it is the role of the pastor to visit the bereaved. Seriously? Where is the instinctive reaching out from one human 
to comfort another? We could learn from the Jewish example of ‘sitting Shiva’, where for seven days relatives and friends go to sit with the bereaved person. It’s just to be there, sitting with the person, taking his or her lead and talking or simply being silent – but present. Usually it involves taking food. Americans tend to do this well. In South Carolina, when my son lost his battle with Leukaemia
last October, my daughter in law didn’t need to prepare a meal the whole time I was there. People would telephone to ask
if we would like clam chowder or green bean casserole or whatever, and friends and family, and colleagues from her clinic came over and just kept us company.

It’s especially important when someone has died from dementia, as caregivers can become more and more isolated as the disease progresses. A church in Southbourne runs a group called ‘The Afters’ for people who are putting their lives together again after a bereavement like this. They meet and chat in church and go for walks and do social things together, for instance, going to the theatre and visiting people in care homes. A special delight was the friendship that developed between a resident whose first language was French, and a woman in the group who had lived in France for some years and was fluent in it.

Research by Age UK has found that a surprising number of older people (over a million) are lonely because they feel that they are worth nothing and that nobody wants to know them. Studies show that they have grown older with a very poor view of old age. They’ve absorbed ageist attitudes that constantly paint a negative picture, such as being a burden on society, and of no use. The best gift for them at Christmas time is hearing from another human being that God values them so much that He gave the best he had, His beloved only Son, to bring them into His family. Many are the ‘Sunday School generation’, who will still hold to the tradition of coming to church
for Christmas services. We can usually spot new faces at church and it’s an opportunity to welcome them warmly, and perhaps give a list of church meetings and activities with the Order of Service at the door.

There’s also the loneliness of people who are isolated in their own homes because of frailty or lack of transport. Many bus routes have been axed to save money with devastating effects for older people relying on them. Over half of all people aged 75 and over live alone, and two-fifths (about 3.9 million) say television is their main company. At Christmas time most churches put a lot of effort into events
for older people in the community, often run by older volunteers themselves. They put notices outside the church and in GPs’ waiting rooms, on supermarket notice-boards and in the local press and often help by arranging lifts for people. At a Christian event this year an elderly visitor told me that he went to three different churches. Not sure whether he really knew Christ, I asked him to tell me more:
he said that he was living on his own and that three churches within walking distance had ‘something going on’ on different days of the week. They were the highlights of his week, and yes, he had committed his life to Jesus Christ many years ago. It’s just that his friends group had ‘passed on’.

Writing to the Christians at Corinth the apostle Paul told them, “if you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious message around in the unadorned clay pots of our lives.” (2 Corinthians 4, The Message Bible). We’re also told that Christians carry with them ‘the fragrance of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 2: 15-17). Never mind the expensive presents and the fancy wrappings – it’s
our unadorned clay pots that make the best gifts at Christmas, simply the giving of our time, and of ourselves.