This Christmas…

After years and years – in fact, pretty much a lifetime – of being heavily involved in the madness that is Christmas in the church, this year was the first time I really wasn’t that involved. In this year of being a ‘punter’ rather than a pulpit user, Christmas was always going to be a different experience…

On the one hand, I’ve missed the hustle and bustle of Christmas spent in the heart of a parish church, as the previous three years have been. The carol services prepared for; the Christmas sermons written; the community teas served at; and, most missed of all, Christmas dinner in my flat with the students. Marking the birth of Christ in seemingly every way possible.

But instead, I’ve had the gift of time. Time to celebrate Christmas in different ways and with different people. Like two consecutive Sundays late-lunching at the Giraffe in Spitalfields market – once with friends from Texas & Iceland, and the next week with Matryoshka Haus pals before we scattered for the holidays. Or a Thursday night with 30 Americans experiencing the joys of mince pies for the first time. (Note to self: next time, explain at the start that they don’t actually contain meat when I make them!)

And time to visit other churches too. Sundays have been the most different to previous years. When I’m free on a Sunday morning (which, this past term has been a terrifyingly rare occurrence thanks to globe-trotting; guest preaching; weekends away; & potential future church visiting) I’ve been worshipping at St Peter’s Bethnal Green. After a gap of some weeks, I felt thoroughly at home on my first Sunday back at their annual Christingle service – the first one I’ve been in the pew for since my very first experience at Westminster Abbey, when in year 7. Standing in a circle around the church, each of us holding a lit Christingle, in the dull light of a dark December morning, was very special.

Christingle at St Peter'sChristingle fruit & Dolly Mixtures – the Sunday breakfast of champions! 

A couple of Sundays later, on the final Sunday in Advent – when many London churches begin to suffer from what is known as the Mass Exodus – St Peter’s deviated from the traditional church carol service, and instead took its carols to the people. 10.30am found a throng of carollers, flasks of hot chocolate and trays of cake, accompanied by a piano rolled through the streets from the church, at the top of Columbia Road – which on a Sunday is home to the famous flower market. I was late, and followed the sound of singing from across Jesus Green (an appropriate location for an outdoor service, no?), and discovered that several residents along the Green had opened their doors and were joining in. It was a fabulous example of getting church out of the church building, and of the things clergy will do spontaneously – in this case, standing atop of a piano to read poetry. Impressive!

Adam on the piano(My favourite thing about this activity was that I found myself adjacent to two other descant singers, which made the carol singing even more fun. When you know you’ve got back up, you can really go to town.) 

Time also gifted me an experience I’d expected never to have again: a carol service at my church of seven years, St Mary’s Bryanston Square. My first ever service there was its carol service in 2004, and it resulted seven happy years worshipping there; becoming an Anglican; and ending up at theological college. Carol services are a big deal at St Mary’s – I sang in six of them and loved every single second of it – when I participated in my last one four years ago, I knew it would be one of the things I’d really miss about the church. Sitting in the congregation of the morning Christingle Service, tingles went up my back the moment the singing began (helped by the fact that the first number was my favourite Christmas song this season – Do You Hear What I Hear?) It was all so familiar. The children sang the same song I’d helped teach the under 6’s sing year after year (the gorgeous Love Shone Down); I caught up with friends I’d not seen in ages; children I remembered as infants had grown up; and all in all it was a fabulous treat. Nowhere does Christmas like St Mary’s, and it was a joy to get another chance at it.

St Mary's Christingle The singers in action at St Mary’s.

I’ve ‘done’ Christmas at a few different churches – there was also a more traditional carol service at Christchurch Spitalfields, supporting my singing flatmate, and a Christmas Eve making a first-ever visit to St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast. Quite a change from only going to one, possibly two churches over the season.

Most of all, this Christmas of non-parish commitments meant that I was free to spend Christmas itself wherever I wanted. I had the option of either a curry Christmas in Tewkesbury (my sister and brother-in-law have long held a desire to go to a curry house for Christmas dinner), or a traditional-ish Christmas in Belfast. I opted for the latter, knowing that Christmas Day in Belfast will be impossible in future years. The siblings arrived on Boxing Day (although bro-in-law has had the lurgy for most of his visit) and a good time was had by all. Tomorrow, we return to England, leaving emptier cake tins and much wine bottle recycling behind.

Clutterbuck Christmas beach selfie #1

Clutterbuck Christmas beach selfie #3The family resemblance is uncanny…

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