The Gift of Giving


StoryThe holiday season is hallmarked by generosity, and this is particularly true in the Celtic community. Here, Celtic Life International Senior Writer Michelle Brunet looks at six inspiring people from Cornwall, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Ireland, the United States and Canada who are generous with their time and spirit at Christmas time, and all year round.




Lady Mary Holborow & the Cornwall Macmillan Christmas Fair

A little over 20 years ago, Lady Mary Holborow and a few friends organized the first Cornwall Macmillan Christmas Fair in memory of a close companion who had passed away from cancer. The fair, they decided, would raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support in Cornwall.

“Macmillan nurses and support staff promote a holistic approach to cancer and life threatening diseases,” explains Holborrow. “They ensure that those whose are suffering, particularly those who are homebound, have every form of help they need.”

The first Cornwall Macmillan Christmas Fair was held at Holborow’s home in Ladock.

“To actually have a gathering like this in one’s own house and garden, with parking in a field in November, in Cornwall, where it rains a lot, is not the most sensible thing to do,” she laughs. “And it poured rain that day! It was a great success, but most cars had to be pulled out by a tractor.”

The event moved to local hotels in following years, and since 2013 has been held at Cornwall’s renowned biome attraction, the Eden Project.

Each year the fair features new and returning vendors of gifts, clothing, jewellery, stocking stuffers and more. A special section highlights Cornish food and drink. Local crafters, artisans and businesses – another passion of Holborow’s via her involvement with the Rural Development Commission – are showcased at the gathering.

Last year, the fair brought in £39,000. This year, Holborow hopes to raise £50,000 to support the construction of The Cove Macmillan Support Centre.

“Cornwall is one of the only Counties that does not have a support unit,” notes Holborrow. “So this year we are helping to raise money needed to build one. It’s a wonderful challenge, but we’ve got an amazing band of people who are a lot younger than me, who work extremely hard to make sure we have a chance to meet our goals.”

She adds that helping others is rewarding for all involved. “Last year, in November, there was somebody at the fair and I knew – and she knew – that she wasn’t going to see Christmas. She was with her daughter, who was pushing her around in her wheelchair. She was piled up with Christmas presents that she had bought and she was really happy. I will always remember that…”   

Marion MacInnes & Alzheimer Scotland, Lewis and Harris

Marion MacInnes has been working with Alzheimer Scotland-Lewis and Harris Services since 2012. She was attracted to the position because of the organization’s mandate to support both people with dementia and their loved ones. Those afflicted with dementia, MacInnes notes, “still want to remain connected to their communities, and have a lot to give, particularly to the younger generation.”

MacInnes often spends her weekends volunteering for the organization’s charity events. “Fundraising is vital to run our community,” she explains. “We put on dementia cafés, singing group, gardening group, walking group and caregiver support groups.”

Christmas is also an important time at Alzheimer Scotland, as clients, caregivers, volunteers and staff all come together to enjoy the spirit of the holidays. “There is a lot of fun and laughter, but it is important for us to remember that people’s spiritual needs are very individual at Christmas and we try to be respectful of this,” says MacInnes.

Yuletide activities planned for Lewis and Harris this year include their annual Christmas dinner, a Christmas cake-making workshop, holiday classic movies, and a Christmas jumper-fundraiser. Ceilidhs, dementia cafés and festive meals will also take place in various localities across the island, and this year’s Sing-along Christmas Concert is moving to a bigger venue – Stornoway’s Town Hall.

“The sing-along concert is very special and the atmosphere is quite moving,” MacInnes shares. “It is a great community event with supporters, families and friends gathering to spend time with people with dementia. Music and song evoke many memories for people living with dementia, particularly the Christmas Carols and Gaelic songs. Music and song are a powerful way to express emotion that is often suppressed. It’s not uncommon for people to have a wee cry.”

Marcia Brabbs & PrisonWorks Isle of Man

The charitable PrisonWorks Isle of Man has been working with offenders and ex-offenders and their families, as well as prison staff, since 1997. The organization puts together a variety of programs, including running a restorative justice course, transporting loved ones to the prison, and initiating meetings “with offenders and prison officers to build relationships.”

Marcia Brabbs got involved with PrisonWorks in 2010. That same year, she was asked to lead the group – which she continues to do. “We challenge the people that we work with to make the choice for change for their own good, for the good of their families and for the good of the Island community as a whole,” she explains. “And then we empower them to act upon those positive choices.”

One of PrisonWorks’ major activities is the Christmas Angel project, where prisoners request to have presents delivered to their children. Participating parents offer gift ideas, and also money if they are able. Donations made to PrisonWorks supplement the remaining cost of the gifts, which are purchased, wrapped and delivered by the charity’s volunteers. Last year, 45 children received gifts through Christmas Angel.

“Christmas Angel is a program for children,” shares Brabbs. “Many of us may not think about it, but the children of parents in prison are victims of crime as well. Having a Mum or a Dad who is incarcerated can be very isolating and embarrassing. It is a way to let the children know that they are cared about and loved and not forgotten.”

One of Brabbs’ favourite Christmas Angel memories is when she delivered a gift from a father in prison to a young boy with “tow-head blonde hair, round wire-rimmed glasses and clad in his jammies.” When she handed him the present and told him who it was from, the boy “immediately said thank you and then turned to his mum again and said, ‘It’s from my daddy!’” I had a huge smile on my face, and it took everything I had not to cry.”

Brabbs also spends a lot of time involved with community service. As a survivor of domestic abuse, she set up Safe, Strong, Secure (3S), the Isle of Man’s only abuse charity. Additionally, she runs an endowment charity called The White Rose in memory of her friend, Dru Hamm, and her own son, Dosch MacLeod.

Mary DeCourcy & the Wicklow RNLI Fundraising Branch

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) is a search and rescue charity run almost entirely by volunteers. Founded in 1824, the RNLI has since saved more than 141,000 lives in the seas around the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

One of the charity’s 230+ stations is the Wicklow RNLI Lifeboat Station. A devoted group of Irish volunteers, the Wicklow RNLI Fundraising Branch, work hard to keep the station running.

Mary DeCourcy has been involved with those efforts for over 16 years. She’s served as Chairperson for the last six, and last year she received a bronze medal from the RNLI for her service. “I have been involved with a myriad of different fundraisers, including cake sales, coffee mornings, athletic events, concerts, musical evenings, cheese and wine nights, Christmas lunch,  knitting club – anything that will raise valuable funds to support our crews!”

Holiday gift ideas go a long way towards supporting the RNLI, and this year the organization is again proud to sell locally produced Christmas cards, CDs and calendars. As well, Wicklow’s Second Coxswain, Ciaran Doyle, recently published a book – Wicklow Lifeboat Station – with all proceeds from the sale benefitting the charity. “Ciaran is our longest serving lifeboat man which more than 30 years continuous service,” notes DeCourcy. “His book is a superb production which tells stories of rescues and the men and women of the service.

“The RNLI is, without doubt, an essential emergency service,” she continues. “When the crews receive a call that someone is in trouble on the sea, they drop what they are doing and go immediately. These are ordinary, everyday men and women who do heroic work in all weathers.”

Bob Currie & the Pipes of Christmas

If you have ever attended or performed in the Pipes of Christmas, then you know that this “festival for the soul” is a true gift. The shows, which take place in New York City and New Jersey each December, are a marvel for both first-time attendees and for those that make the concerts an annual holiday tradition.

Now in its 17th year, the production was founded by Bob Currie, president of Clan Currie. Rather than boast about the tireless efforts he puts in each successful season, Currie instead expresses gratitude to his dedicated creative team, musicians, composers, event sponsors, and ticket buyers.

Attendees aren’t the only benefactors. Currie shares that proceeds from the musical extravaganzas “help spread gifts year round. We are fortunate to bestow a number of international music and history scholarships at many leading institutions, including the Gaelic College in Nova Scotia, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, the National Piping Centre in Glasgow, Edinburgh Napier University in Edinburgh, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye, and Lyon College in Arkansas.”

Proceeds also go to support Celtic cultural events, including the Ceòlas Arts Festival and the US National Scottish Harp Championship. As well, Currie and his team donate Pipes of Christmas tickets to non-profits for their fundraising activities – something they have done for over 20 organizations to date.

More recently, they have been hosting food drives at the event. “Last year alone, we collected just under 400 pounds of non-perishable food that we brought to the Community Food Bank of New Jersey to help the less fortunate.”

Kenny Zakem & Santa’s Angels

Every child, and child-at-heart, dreams of meeting Santa Claus at Christmas time. For youngsters in-and-around Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island that dream has become a reality of humanitarian proportions in recent years.

Each Christmas Day, a volunteer organization called Santa’s Angels delivers gifts and food to people experiencing tough times. Sometimes the recipient families put in a formal request. Other times, they are nominated and completely surprised to see Santa and his elves at their front door.

In its first year, over a decade ago, a small group – Kenny Zakem, Don Wright, Father Stephen Allen and Allen’s son Josh – made the December 25th deliveries. Today Santa’s Angels engages over 100 volunteers.

“It all began with Don Wright, whom I met at the Upper Room Soup Kitchen while I was doing some volunteer work there,” recalls Zakem. “He had a big white beard, and I asked him if he would like to play Santa. Luckily he said yes. We now have eight Santas!”

Santa’s Angels takes up most of Zakem’s time, and not just during the holiday months. He and the organizing committee have fundraisers, toy and food drives, and seek out donations all year round. “We just get the word out to the community and it is amazing how generous people are year after year.”

Nothing can beat the delight Zakem senses among the recipients and volunteers. “We let the spirit of Christmas touch the hearts and souls of people. When I see a volunteer come back from a house with tears of joy in their eyes, sharing their story, it means I have done my job.”

Zakem ponders the expression you can only keep what you have when you give it away. “The saying it is better to give than receive would explain this one…the feeling you get when you give is always going to be special to you and you will remember that feeling more than anything. When you give …you make someone happy and I think it`s a great feeling and I’m guessing most people feel the same.”