Despite growing up in a rag and bone household in the bleak post-war 1950s, Gloria Stewart remembers her poor but kindhearted parents always had an extra setting at their table, especially at Christmas.
The warmth of her mum and dad’s welcome for destitute guests at the coldest time of the year inspired the 69-year-old grandmother to spread her own seasonal joy – and now she invites all the lonely old folk in her local town for Christmas dinner.
"Mum and dad barely had a penny to rub together," recalls Gloria, from Sheffield, South Yorkshire. "But it didn’t matter how small our portions were, she’d never turn down any waif or stray that knocked on the door.
"When I became a mum, I made the festive season as special as possible. But then I met an old lady who was spending Christmas alone in bed with the curtains drawn, and it broke my heart."
It takes a special person with a big heart and an even bigger table to invite 87 lonely pensioners for Christmas, but what started out as Gloria’s first Home Alone event in 2007 has now grown to serving a luxury five-course turkey lunch to over 500 happy guests.
And every Christmas, Gloria wears her most sparkly dress to serve the traditional roast to every table of her smiling, grateful guests, making time to speak to as many of them as possible.
After her first lunch, Gloria was nicknamed Mrs Christmas. "The title just stuck," she said.
And now she has written a book about her extraordinary life helping bring joy to elderly folk who would normally spend Christmas alone – some going weeks without any contact from the outside world.
"Watching each and every person have a good time and mix with everyone else is all the reward I need," says Gloria. "If I can make just one person feel less isolated over Christmas, then it makes it all worthwhile."
Now a mum of four and grandmother of seven, Gloria says: "I was one of five children, although one of my brothers died as a toddler, and mum did the best she could to make ends meet."
Despite living hand to mouth, Gloria’s mum could always find an extra meal for those in need. She recalls: "Mum often helped a blind man. I only knew him as Nocker but he became a regular visitor to our house. As well as feeding him, Mum helped him make up lavender sachets that he would sell for a few pence each."
Christmas was a frugal affair for the family, and Gloria’s life was tough.
"I barely had any friends and I was teased for being so poor. I would often stare out of the bedroom window I shared with my parents and sister, watching strangers go past and wonder what their lives were like."
Far from becoming bitter, Gloria was determined no one else should endure the loneliness and hardship she had suffered as a child.
And despite her own health problems, including battling cancer three times and recovering from a debilitating stroke, Gloria became more determined than ever to ensure Christmas was not overshadowed with sadness.
After taking an elderly relative for a hospital appointment, a chance conversation in the waiting room changed Gloria’s life.
She says: "I casually asked one old lady how she would be spending the day and she explained all her family had died and would be taking a flask of tea and a packet of biscuits to bed, drawing the curtains and only getting up once it was all over.
"It broke my heart to think of anyone being on their own but she wasn’t alone – others around the room all agreed, saying they also spent the festive period alone."
Determined to make a difference to those people’s lives, Gloria came up with the idea of holding a social event for the festive season’s loneliest people. After producing leaflets and appealing for donations in December 2007, Gloria hosted that first Home Alone lunch. Since then her Christmas dinner has grown.
The big-hearted grandmother has received an award from Sheffield City Council for her efforts and has been recognised by Amnesty International and commended by former Prime Minister David Cameron.
But for Gloria, the real prize comes as she watches the smiles light up the faces of her lunch guests. She says: "There really is no greater reward. Just for a few hours they escape their loneliness and are surrounded by love."
Gloria’s book, A Friend For Christmas , is available now from Amazon
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