This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2017.
At the end of a year like this, you’d be forgiven for feeling as if your dark, gnarled heart was just about ready to wither and perish. But then you meet people like Mick and Sarah Dore and you realise that maybe—just maybe—humanity isn’t so doomed after all.
The Dores have run The Alexandra pub in Wimbledon, South London, for almost eight years now, and last month they made an offer to anyone who would be spending Christmas Day on their own: come and have lunch with us.
“Free turkey dinner & a pint on Christmas day for anyone who is on their own. No strings, catches or nonsense,” the post said on Twitter, and the likes soon started pouring in. Everyone from South Africa to New Jersey got in contact to congratulate the Dores on the idea. A fishmonger in Hackney offered smoked salmon for the starter. Others promised crackers, cakes, and more money that the pub could ever need in donations. And, honestly, that’s about as far as I could get without welling up, as the heartfelt replies to the couple's tweet must be the kindest corner of the screaming hell-mouth that Twitter has become.
Mick—who lives above the pub with Sarah and his two teenage kids—says he first had the idea about six years ago, on actual Christmas Day, when the pub opened up for its annual festive lunch service.
“An old boy came in, I think he might have been homeless, and I ended up sitting down and chatting to him for a while, he was a nice old fella. And that set me thinking, he’s chosen to come here to spend the day here, why not open it up to more people next Christmas?”
So the next year, the couple figured they’d offer a pint or glass of wine to others who were also facing the thought of a lonely December 25. They stuck some posters up around the pub, told locals, and hit up social media. This time, 12 people turned up, mostly retired servicemen, they say. Last year, thanks to a kitchen refurbishment, the couple extended the offer even further.
“‘Give that only about ten people turn up,’” Mick remembers reasoning, “‘why don’t we give them a bit of turkey too?’ We did a little collection and raised the money in about five minutes and then we stuck it on Twitter.”
On the day itself, 29 people came for turkey and the trimmings, and Mick and Sarah noticed something amazing unfold. Despite the random guest list, bringing strangers together to eat festive food made it feel like a regular family Christmas dinner.
“There was a real mixture of people who turned up,” says Mick. “We had an IT guy who had missed his last train home, he was meant to be going to Derby. Then we had a guy who split up with his wife just a few weeks before—she had the kids and he didn’t want to be on his own. There was a retired actor, an artist who was quite eccentric but she was lovely. They all spent the whole day here together and were all good friends by the end of it. We even had a budding romance start, too. It was a woman and man in their 50s and they just hit it off on the day—they left together and then came in here a few times on dates. But apparently it’s all gone pear-shaped now.”
Loneliness at Christmas is like a sneeze in a packed Tube carriage—it’s all around us, but we can’t see it. A report in 2014 estimated that as many as four million people in the UK would be spending Christmas day on their own. And it’s not just something the elderly face, as OAPs make up just 12.5 percent of this number. The rest are younger people who can’t afford train or airfares back home, people who work in the service industries, people who have fallen out with family members, divorcees, the recently bereaved … the reasons are as long as Santa’s list.
It’s something that breaks the Dores’ hearts.
“The thought of someone sitting on their own on Christmas Day is just horrible,” Sarah says. “We hope that what we do makes people aware of people around them who might be on their own. Knock on their door and see if they’d like a glass of sherry or something. It makes such a difference to people.”
There also seems to be a stigma in telling people that you’re home alone for the holidays. Several people turned up to the pub for the dinner last year saying they didn’t need a dinner, but wanted to help out with the service. Mick realised that these guests wanted to avoid what they thought might be a pity party, so he drafted them in to help plate up and serve up the feast instead.
Which brings us on to the food. This year, The Alexandra will be setting up their special dinner party up in the pub’s Green Bar area, complete with Christmas crackers and hats (it’s not December 25 if you haven't had to endure the indignity of a brightly coloured paper crown) and they’ve got enough food ready for up to 200 solo walk-ins.
“I think we’ll have loads more guests than last year,” Mick says. “It feels like we’ve broken the ice a bit more.”
There’ll be a smoked salmon starter, followed by turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes, and vegetables, then Christmas pudding with custard and mince pies donated by a local bakery. Guests will also have a festive drink on the house.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Britain without someone throwing in a bit of sneering cynicism at the Dores’ Christmas dinner. Someone on Twitter asks about those who will abuse it and just pretend to be alone for some free scran. Who cares, Mick says.
“No one’s done it so far. Someone said the other day, well, what if you get a house of people who come in separately and pretend they don’t know each other? Ultimately, does it really matter? They’re going to get a dinner that people have donated or paid for. It’s too easy to put rules or regulations in and we don’t want any barriers. If you go through life thinking, ‘Oh, I won’t do this because that might happen,’ then you’d never do anything. If we get 50 people and five of them were mickey-takers, would it still be worth doing it for the other 45 genuine people? One million percent. We’re also asked, are homeless people allowed to come? We say of course they are. Nobody gets turned away.”
And the kindness doesn’t end there. The Dores will donate any leftovers to a local church that becomes a homeless shelter over Christmas. At this point, it wouldn’t surprise me to find a sleigh, 12 reindeer, and several elves residing behind the back of the pub, and Mick to reveal himself to be Father Christmas himself.
In a year when communities have become fractured and divided, it’s also a reminder of the importance of having a neighbourhood space that’s for everyone. Watching the perma-cheery Mick work the pub floor, chatting to families having Saturday lunch together, or cracking a joke with the lads watching the football by the bar, it makes me realise what we’re missing with the rise of identikit cocktail bars or shitty All Bar Ones taking over our high streets.
With pubs closing at a rate of 21 a week last year, it’s people like the Dores—who work tirelessly the other 364 days of the year too—ensuring that our remaining public houses remain so popular. They see the social side of their business as being just as important as the financial.
In typical fashion, Mick plays this down: “At the end of the day, we’re just a pub and I think what we do is what anyone else would do in this situation. We’ve always looked at the pub like our home. If people turn up at your house, you’re never going to say you’re not allowed in, you’d say come on in.
“Like with the riots in 2011, when it was all happening around us, we stayed open the whole time. We shut our doors but tweeted: ‘Knock at the window and we’ll let you in.’ People like to have somewhere they could go at times like these. That’s what our pub is all about. The Christmas dinner thing we’re doing is just an extension of that. People say, ‘Oh, you’re doing a great thing,’ but I just absolutely love doing it. It’s my favourite day of the year.”
And if that isn’t the spirit of Christmas, then I’ll eat my paper crown.