AN INTERVIEW WITH THE DEAN
“It’s been an incredibly difficult year for all charities. The need for the support they give is growing and yet the ability to fundraise has been curtailed, therefore Black Santa this year is going to be more important than ever”.
As Dean of Belfast Cathedral, Stephen Forde, prepares for his third Black Santa Sit Out, he’s hopeful it will continue to engage people in the same way it has for the past 44 years. He knows how much charities and the people they help are relying on the grant from Black Santa for their work in 2021.
“I think the needs those charities are supporting are going to be particularly acute next year, so every penny that we can raise will be put to very good use and will be a huge support to them. The money that people donate to this appeal goes directly to local charities that make a huge difference in their own communities.”
How it’s changed
44 years ago, Dean Sammy Crooks started the tradition of sitting out in front of Belfast Cathedral, collecting money from passersby, with the money then being distributed to local charities. Things have changed only slightly, with the addition of contactless payments last year which people could use when they visited the Cathedral.
However this year things are markedly different because of the pandemic restrictions.To help maintain that connection with the public and the charities, the Sit Out has added a new way for people to visit and support - by going online to its new website. People will be able to donate online and read more about the charities they are helping, making this year's Black Santa accessible for all, especially to the younger generations.
“I am conscious that Black Santa is a story that needs to be told to new generations. Belfast has changed dramatically as a city, and it’s a vibrant place which attracts people from many places who choose to make it their home. Over the last year or two it is very noticeable how many people visit as a tourist venue ahead of Christmas, so you’re explaining to both new generations and to people visiting how important the Sit-Out is.
“Young people are, as a generation, very alert and aware of other people's needs and open to the call to do what they can and support others so with Black Santa going online, it opens up a whole new opportunity for people to engage.”
Can’t avoid some things!
Before becoming Dean, Stephen knew that this would be a role he would have to take up and it is a tradition that he always looks forward to, chuckling as he describes the usually reliable poor weather in Northern Ireland.
“The Sit Out is something I actually look forward to. The weather can be grim. It can be raining, it can be blowing a gale, but you are well wrapped up. I have a special set of Black Santa thermals that keep me warm but I love it because it’s an opportunity to meet people from a huge spectrum of situations.”
Surely once you get wet there’s no getting warm?
“It is certainly one of the challenges. The big black cloaks that give their name to Black Santa are incredibly waterproof, but eventually they absorb so much water that you have to go put on a different one!”
One moment that stands out for the Dean was the response to the 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia. “When the Tsunami hit, the Black Santa of the day extended the Black Santa appeal beyond Christmas and people came and made a huge contribution to the relief effort.”
The spirit of Belfast
It is something to come out every year to support local charities but to do the same after Christmas, when usually we are all counting the pennies after an expensive month, proves exactly how generous visitors to Belfast are.
Dean Stephen is keen to reiterate that Belfast has always been like this. “Black Santa was started in the darkest days of the Troubles and when virtually nothing happened in the city centre, people would hurry in and hurry out before darkness fell. People remember Black Santa throughout those darkest days as something that gave hope and that brought people together throughout the entire community and the entire city, so it was a place where the barriers in all senses were lowered and the spirit of Christmas overcame the darkness the people were looking through. That was an important part of the foundation of the Black Santa.”
With Covid still rife across the world, history tells us that the people of Belfast and those visiting Belfast will always be ready to support Black Santa and the local charities that they help. Whilst 2020 has been a tough year for all, they will be determined to ensure 2021 is better for all.