Open Christmas has offered a meal, shelter and a friendly face to those in need in Norfolk for 22 years.

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The annual festive gathering sees some 400 people flock to St Andrew’s Hall in Norwich where they are treated to entertainment and a traditional meal.

It was started in 1990 by Mike and Rosie Hope, who wanted to deliver a special day to those who lived on their own or who could not afford a Christmas meal.

It is now run by a committee of five people and a strong team of volunteers.

Sheila Amies is a familiar face on Christmas Day.

The 89-year-old has spent the past 20 Christmases volunteering at Open Christmas, after meeting someone at a yoga class who was involved with the cause.

The mother-of-two said: “Because I have been doing it for so long, they always ask me to show guests around... I always tell them the history of it and about how things used to be – we used to put cigarettes on the tables.

“People always ask if I miss my family but I can see them any day of the year. I always enjoy it and my family know that.”

Mrs Amies, of Hall Road, said the event was a lifeline for those who would otherwise spend the day alone.

Philip Millar, who is head of security at the charity Christmas event, is volunteering for the ninth consecutive year.

“I moved to Norwich and there was a notice in the hostel where I was staying. I called the organisers and explained my situation and it all snowballed from there,” he said.

On Christmas Eve, Mr Millar helps to set up and decorate the hall.

“We start at about 7.30am on Christmas Day and we finish the decorations and have a meeting so everyone knows what is going on.

“A few years ago, some people thought it would be a good idea to flaunt the rules and bring alcohol in so for the past few years I have been on security.

“It’s like a giant family with 400 people,” he added.

Guests start to arrive at 11am and they stay until 5pm. Before they leave, they are given a package of food to take away.

Mr Millar, a self employed security guard who lives in Bussey Road, Norwich, said: “The day goes so fast and by the end you are mentally and physically drained. When you see the elderly people it’s heartwarming, because for some, it’s the only day they will get out to see other people. You can’t put a value on something like that.”

The 57-year-old, who has two daughters, three grandchildren and a fourth on the way, added: “One year my youngest daughter came down to give us a hand and she really enjoyed it.

“I hope all of our guests have a great Christmas We aim to make it the best we can.

For more information about the event, see www.openchristmas.org.uk

Log on to our website tomorrow for reports and pictures from the event.

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