Seventy years after a Methodist minister in Melbourne placed a bowl on his Christmas dinner table and urged those gathered around contribute money to help refugees in post-war Europe, the annual Christmas Bowl Appeal is still raising vital funds to help people in need.

The appeal has, to date, raised more than $A100 million to help people facing hardships across the world. Last year alone more than 1,300 Australian churches from across 15 denominations took part, adding some $A2.3 million to the total raised.

Christmas Bowl 1

The Christmas Bowl appeal has been held every year since 1949 and raised more than $A100 million. PICTURE: Act for Peace

It’s a remarkable testimony to the vision of Rev Frank Byatt, the aforementioned Methodist minister who started the appeal in 1949 and who went on to famously say that if the “churches will not help relieve the untold human suffering of refugees in many countries, no other organisation will".

That vision has proved inspirational for Hannah Montgomery, who today manages the Christmas Bowl Appeal for Act for Peace – the international aid agency of the National Council of Churches in Australia.

“We hear so much about the disunity of churches and how the church is shrinking or the church is aging [but], for me, I’m very inspired by the Christmas Bowl because it’s such a stark contrast to that message we keep hearing…Instead…there’s 1,300 churches here that are hearing what’s going on in the world and saying ‘That’s not OK but we want to do something about it’. And I think that’s an incredibly powerful message.”

- Hannah Montgomery, who manages the Christmas Bowl Appeal for Act for Peace.

“We hear so much about the disunity of churches and how the church is shrinking or the church is aging [but], for me, I’m very inspired by the Christmas Bowl because it’s such a stark contrast to that message we keep hearing…Instead…there’s 1,300 churches here that are hearing what’s going on in the world and saying ‘That’s not OK but we want to do something about it’. And I think that’s an incredibly powerful message.”

The Christmas Bowl Appeal, which has been held every year since 1949, runs from Christ the King Sunday (this year held on 24th November) through to the first Sunday after Christmas.

Montgomery says while some churches choose to take part across all seven weeks, other congregations may make the appeal a special focus on one or two of the weeks, with Christmas Day among them.

“Churches take part in a lot of different ways,” she says. “A lot of them even have their own version of a Christmas Bowl [and] they might do a ‘blessing of the bowl’ service…and some people will actually give their donations into the bowl but others will just use the envelopes.”

Christmas Bowl 2

Hannah Montgomery, of Act for Peace, talks to Zimbabwean farmer Chipo who, thanks to funds raised through the Christmas Bowl, is learning new techniques to cope with a changing climate so they can grow enough food to feed their families. PICTURE: Act for Peace.

While the initial appeal was made in support of post-war refugees in Europe, Montgomery says these days the proceeds raised in the appeal are used to support people where-ever around the world the need is greatest. 

“We don’t always know where the need is going to be but the idea is that [the funds will go to] the places where it is needed the most," says Montgomery. “So, in 1984-85 when it was the Ethiopian famine, for example, Christmas Bowl funds helped during that time of crisis...It’s really trying to meet the needs at that time.”

“We don’t always know where the need is going to be but the idea is that [the funds will go to] the places where it is needed the most."

- Hannah Montgomery.

Last year the funds were used to help Rohingya refugees with medical support and shelter and, this year, the funds are being used to support some of the almost 71 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced from their homes because of conflict and disaster, including people affected by the ongoing strife in South Sudan.

“Particularly to help provide water and urgently needed sanitation and hygiene items as well,” says Montgomery. 

For the Willunga Uniting Church in McLaren Vale, which lies to the south of Adelaide in South Australia, the annual Christmas Bowl Appeal is a chance for people to reach across the globe to help those less fortunate than themselves.

“[W]e support the Christmas Bowl [as well as] Act for Peace in general for their work throughout the world,” says Jenny Esots, who is the church’s secretary. “So it’s a global initiative that we support. I think it’s important to look outside our affluent country.”

Willunga Christmas Tree festival

The Willunga Christmas Tree Festival, now in its 18th year, helps to raise funds for the Christmas Bowl Appeal. PICTURE: Act for Peace.

The church of about 40 people holds the appeal as part of its annual Christmas Tree Festival. Now in its 18th year, it centres on an exhibition of Christmas trees made by members of the local community including schools and draws a crowd of hundreds of people from the community and surrounding areas as well as visitors from further afield. Each year, a ‘Christmas Bowl’ tree takes pride of place in the exhibition.

Part of the proceeds raised from entry fees to the exhibition and purchases at Christmas-themed stalls are given to the Christmas Bowl Appeal along with a Christmas Day collection and last year the church raised more than $2,000 for the appeal.

“[W]e support the Christmas Bowl [as well as] Act for Peace in general for their work throughout the world."

- Jenny Esots, secretary at Willunga Uniting Church in South Australia.

“It’s a good time to connect with the community,” says Esots. “Christmas is, I always think, is the major time to make an impact so that’s our major event of the year.”

Montgomery agrees the link with Christmas has been an important part of the appeal’s success.

“I think Christmas is certainly a real time of reflection...and it’s a real time of remembering what Christ did for us ,” she says. “And [while] it’s a time of celebration, it’s also a time for reflecting on how lucky we are and what we can have at Christmas time when we have our family and friends around us and we’re buying gifts for everyone. 

“Christmas Bowl is not meant to take the joy out of Christmas or anything like that, [but] it’s certainly a really good time for people to stop and reflect go, ‘Actually, while I’m providing for my own family, I can also give something to somebody else who may need it more than I do’.”

As in past years, Act for Peace is providing a resource kit for churches - including sermon starts, liturgy, giving envelopes and PowerPoint presentations - which will be available for download from early October. In the meantime, churches are encouraged to register at www.actforpeace.org.au/ChristmasBowl.

Willunga Christmas Tree festival2

The Christmas Bowl tree at the Willunga Christmas Tree Festival last year. PICTURE: Supplied.

The Altona/Laverton Anglican Church, located in the west of Melbourne, Victoria, is another church which has regularly supported the appeal.

Rev Chris Lancaster, who has been based at the church for the past four-and-a-half years, says the appeal is a good way to “look beyond ourselves”.

“This is something that the Australian church as a whole does together at Christmas time – that has significant…value. We look beyond ourselves in the world but we also look beyond ourselves in the Australian church and join in with something bigger than ourselves.”

- Rev Chris Lancaster of the Altona-Laverton Anglican Church in Victoria.

“The fact that it’s ecumenical and also distinctly Australian definitely adds further value to it,” he says. “This is something that the Australian church as a whole does together at Christmas time – that has significant…value. We look beyond ourselves in the world but we also look beyond ourselves in the Australian church and join in with something bigger than ourselves.”

The church, which has about 110 to 120 people attend services on Sunday, last year collected some $A1,500 for the appeal.

Lancaster says that as well as collecting for the appeal in their own parish at Christmas services, the Christmas Bowl Appeal was also highlighted at the community Christmas carol event held by churches in the local park each year.

He says that given the attendance of visitors at Christmas services and the carols service, “it’s good to be saying, ‘Well, we’re not just inviting a collection for ourselves but rather for something beyond ourselves’.”

www.actforpeace.org.au/ChristmasBowl