In the mid nineteen seventies, when I was in my mid twenties, I was Warden of a 12-bedded hostel for "Male Alcoholics with a History of Vagrancy"!
Edinburgh Corporation, with Scottish Office funding, was running an experimental hostel for alcoholic men who wanted to stop drinking. The experimental bit was that the men had to attend two groups each week. One was run by a psychologist who had a very hands-on type of therapy, and the other was a decision-making group where Hostel day-to-day running decisions were taken, run by my Deputy and me. The men also decided what happened to those who transgressed the no-drinking rule and, of those applying to come to live with us, who would be welcomed in to our group. One such meeting was the only time I almost fainted with rage.
Christmas was looming and no resident would commit himself to making suggestions, not to mention decisions, about what we would do with Christmas.
My Deputy and I were committed to being there on Christmas Day, especially as
the Cook would not be there. Exactly one week before Christmas we took our
courage in our hands and invited the men to meet with us to work out what we
would do with the budget we had been given.
We met for three hours.
I asked what past Christmases has been like. Their stories took most of the first two hours. Two normally silent brothers from a big travelling family talked of warmth and food, and fights and hiding. Others talked of wonderful childhood Christmases with post-war chocolate and real puddings. And they told stories of more recent times when their drinking caused mental and physical pain to their families and destroyed the family day. Their honesty and pain were remarkable. Their tears and regrets were genuine; and I think took us closer to the deep meanings at the heart of Christmas.What did we together decide for Christmas Day? It would be a gentle time with us accepting each other and our pasts, if possible laying them to one side. Some of the men would set to cooking the dinner, and we would enjoy cigars and chocolates, and no gifts other than each others' company.
The day was exactly that, and one of the most relaxed and accepting days I have experienced. Our shared humanity saw us through.
Image: John and Mike, Thornybauk Hostel, Summer 1975
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