Confessions of a Christmas Junkie
or the Tale of the Sermon and the Frilly Knickers
I have to admit to being a bit of a Christmas junkie, particularly when it comes to the stuff of organised religion. Christmas always seems to reach the parts of me other major Christian festivals don't. I spent a lot of my childhood in and around church and understood from an early age that two thirds of the fun of organised religion lies in being part of its Organisation. With plenty of time on my hands (PhD finished - thank you God, Microsoft, my friends, and my consistently underwhelmed supervisor) I decided to pack in as much fun as I could handle over Christmas.
To my knowledge, this is the first year I have ever been to a Crib Service. On the day before Christmas Eve I was escorted into St Peter's by two under fives, wrapped up tightly in their new outfits Grandma had provided for Christmas. And then we did the Christmas story - the sheep found standing up a bit of a worry, the wise men journeyed from the altar and chocolate was half eaten, half spread across the carpet. The Nativity Set was knitted. We had used an identical set in Sunday School the week before in a sort of nativity beetle drive: throw a one and get to position a sheep, throw a six and put Jesus in the cradle! Then it all seemed to have that slight comical edge renowned for producing innkeepers that say yes and farmyard animals that answer the call of nature at the most sacred of moments. This time it just seemed all warm and cuddly, all bright eyed and innocent. Anyway, it was all pronounced good by one of my two who later marched into his house shouting 'meeting up church, good' to anyone who cared to have ears to hear.
I spent the morning before the Carol Service on Christmas Eve balancing precariously, with candles in hand, on very small ledges which I still think only exist in Trevor's World. All was going remarkably smoothly until about ten minutes before kick off (honest! - it just looked like organised chaos). As the 'proper' Nativity Set was being unwrapped and wise men were being deposited in the back pew suddenly the cry went up 'has anyone seen Jesus?' Minor panic ensued, I for one was increasingly aware that we had a large sign outside proclaiming 'Jesus - the Man Behind the Millennium. Come and See Him Here!' With minutes to spare He was found in the safe. I spent the best part of the carol service de-stressing in the porch as a third of one of the most highly qualified teams of light switch operators to be found in the West. And Jesus made it to His cradle.
Christmas Eve Midnight Mass and the Christmas morning Eucharist found me at the back of church pretending to be a steward. I just about managed the experience with the swank of youth until I realised I'd never exactly noticed what stewards did with the money once collected - many thanks to Keith Charter for holding my sleeve so that I didn't inadvertently pocket a tenner whilst performing at the altar! With Christmas over the real work began.
I am no stranger to the midweek life of St Peter's and to the regulars who make its life so full. It had been deemed from on high, well at least from the Education Committee I think, that the church should be open in the day during the week between Christmas and New Year to provide space for people to think, reflect and hopefully pray. And they came, well the times I was in church, they came. More in dribbles than in droves - but needs were met. With the coffee room shut, the offices closed down and the town centre shops discounting for all they were worth, the church itself had even more of a monastic feel to it than usual. This was made all the more realistic by the provision of a short time of led prayer on the hour and a short blast of music on the half hour. It felt as though amid all the heaving there was a space which carried the echo of a different rhythm. And then there was the Nativity Set, Version Three. Made of paper, borrowed from Hopewell's, and placed centre stage; a stark reminder of the no-frills message of the Christmas story. To me however it seemed to shout, much more loudly than any human voice, about the vulnerability and yet beauty of so many of the visitors I have encountered in St Peter's.
New Years Day saw the turn of the Christians to throng and mill in the town centre. We were to march on the Market Square from all four corners of the compass on the stroke of midday. Having already been pumped up until near excitement point by Jan Huckle giving me a loud wake up call that morning with the strains of the song we were to sing on entry, I joined the St Peter's crew who made their way to the top of Friar Lane just as the march from the Meadows appeared in view. We mooched down Friar Lane, hung around, and then, as the clock struck twelve, we sprang upon the Market Square making as much noise as English reserve would permit. And I have to say, it was one of those moments that does your heart good. We were near the front of our particular merry band and, although I'm no stranger to big Christian events and hefty 'marches of witness', it seemed as though they just kept on coming, and coming and coming from every direction. We sang the David Hind (Talbot Street, Youth Minister) Special Song; a version of the creed, in very victorious fashion and then got down to listening to the hopes and dreams of the movers and shakers of the city. By the way, there's a chap, big in the local police force, who is most definitely a Christian. And yes we did sing Cliff Richard's Millennium Prayer - Eileen included, much to Jan Huckle's delight. I could have done without joining the march just at a 'Shine, Jesus Shine' moment but that's a personal thing to do with repressed memories. However, all in all it was a good do. Lots of people, lots of people who knew people, lots of people who knew people who knew people, and lots of laughter.
It wasn't until I went back to work that I realised that of all the memories I had of the celebrations the one which kept popping into my head was that of sitting in St Peter's on Boxing Day morning with half my mind negotiating Wally's sermon and the other half negotiating the pair of frilly knickers I had just found on the church steps. Maybe it's because that was one of the few occasions I actually managed to act normally (!) in St Peter's over the festive period. However, I'd like to think that particular event stuck because of it's spiritual content. The latter was such a wonderful, if slightly risqué illustration of the theme of the former - life is all a bit of a muddle. It is the sheer mixing up of the holy and the not so holy, the innocence of the young and the complicity of the powerful, the good and the bad, the painful and the joyful, endings and beginnings, regrets and hopes. Somehow Christmas doesn't seem as linear as Easter with it's bad and sad to good and glad storyline. Sometimes on the journey we pass milestones but it's a whole mingling of events and emotions which gets us to them and beyond them.
On the first day of January 2000 1 used the following words as a prayer in St Peters. They come from some liturgy adopted by the Baptist Union:
Here's to another year, another millennium!