Every year, the University of Oxford releases a short, charming video to wish the sort of people who look this stuff up on YouTube Season’s Greetings (even though the University celebrates what’s unequivocally Christmas, with a small side of Hanukkah, full-time for five weeks each year). For 2017, it’s a sweet video about the friendship between a bird and a Magdalen gargoyle. The video’s pathos suggests the Westgate John Lewis had spread its marketing influence right down the High Street.
Imagine that I blogged yesterday. Imagine that this was not derailed by encouraging Own Godson – five months, two chins, rolls of chub where lesser mortals have wrists and knees – to consume 50 precious ml. of milk before snoring, and then by attending the Magdalen Christmas Entertainment. Both were extremely festive.
Godson admired our Christmas tree, kicked his legs, and practiced a range of noises ranging from the dulcet coo to the tropical-bird-cum-opera-singer shriek. My mum has been visiting, so he appreciated the triumvirate of adoring women dedicated to passing him toys and acclaiming his cleverness.
Unsurprisingly, Christmas focuses on the newborn Jesus, and aside from two of the Gospels describing how he ‘kept increasing in wisdom and stature’, he next turns up as an (I imagine) infuriatingly precocious twelve-year-old. Being very fond of babies, I have a great deal of sympathy for the writers and (even if saccharine) artists who’ve wallowed in a longer narrative of Jesus’s babyhood. I always liked the line of Once In Royal David’s City about the child Jesus: ‘tears us and smiles like us he knew’ (much better than the the verse detailing Jesus’ invariable obedience to Mary). It’s cheering to imagine Jesus at five months, testing his lungs and kicking his legs – even if he didn’t have a cuddly octopus to attack with the same gusto with which our godson wrangles his. I’m also grateful not to be looking after said godson in a stable, or anywhere full of sand.
Then college, where the tiny choristers were significantly less sleepy than last year, inc. the very smallest and blondest who looked about to burst with excitement during The Twelve Days of Christmas (as, in all honesty, did the countertenor who sang a Mariah Carey-esque solo during Jingle Bells). The pudding was ignited. The Academical Clerks (big choristers) sang more Mariah Carey over mulled wine. The tree’s lights sparkled and the cloisters weren’t any damper than last year. Today, we made a festive pilgrimage to the Broad Street market (and, er, John Lewis). I bought a winter hat that wasn’t designed for a man with an XL skull – an epoch.
Jumping back to Thursday evening (in an oscillation entirely unsuited to the relentless onwards push of an Advent Calendar), three small choristers read from Molesworth’s How To Be Topp (1958) by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. It was so funny that I decided to repost it here – and nobody really minds opening two windows at once on an Advent Calendar, in order to enjoy two lots of chocolate a double dose of seasonal cheer:
Another thing about xmas eve is that your pater always reads the xmas carol by c. dickens. You canot stop this aktualy although he pretend to ask you whether you would like it. He sa: Would you like me to read the xmas carol as it is xmas eve, boys?
We are listening to the space serial on the wireless, daddy.
But you canot prefer that nonsense to the classick c. dickens?
Be quiet. He is out of control and heading for jupiter.
But — He’s had it the treen space ships are ataking him ur-ur-ur-whoosh. Out of control limping in the space vacuum for evermore unless they can get the gastric fuel compressor tampons open.
I — Why don’t they try Earth on the intercom? They will never open those tampons with only a z-ray griper. They will — Father thwarted strike both boys heavily with loaded xmas stoking and tie their hands behind their backs. He cart them senseless into the sitting room and prop both on his knees. Then he begin: THE XMAS CAROL by C. DICKENS (published by grabber and grabber) Then he rub hands together and sa You will enjoy this boys it is all about ghosts and goodwill. It is tip-top stuff and there is an old man called scrooge who hates xmas and canot understand why everyone is so mery. To this you sa nothing except that scrooge is your favourite character in fiction next to tarzan of the apes. But you can sa anything chiz. Nothing in the world in space is ever going to stop those fatal words: Marley was dead Personaly i do not care a d. whether Marley was dead or not it is just that there is something about the xmas Carol which makes paters and grown-ups read with grate )(PRESTON, and this is very embarassing for all. It is all right for the first part they just roll the r’s a lot but wate till they come to scrooge’s nephew. When he sa Mery Christmas uncle it is like an H-bomb xplosion and so it go on until you get to Tiny Tim chiz chiz chiz he is a weed. When Tiny Tim sa God bless us every one your pater is so overcome he burst out blubbing. By this time boys hay bitten through their ropes and make good their escape so 9000000000 boos to bob cratchit.
Xmas Nite At last the tiny felows are tucked up snug in their beds with 3 pilow slips awaiting santa claus. As the lite go off a horid doubt assale the mind e.g. suposing there is a santa claus. Zoom about and lay a few traps for him (see picture) Determin to lie awake and get him but go to slepe in the end cruz and dream of space ships. While thus employed something do seem to be hapning among the earthmen.
Be quiet you will wake them up. Hav you got the mecano his is the one with 3 oranges if you drop that pedal car agane i shall scream where are the spangles can you not tie a knot for heavens sake ect. ect.
It would seem that the earthmen are up to something but you are far to busy with the treens who are defending the space palace with germ guns. So snore on, fair child, snore on with thy inocent dreams and do not get the blud all over you.
The Day Xmas day always start badly becos molesworth 2 blub he has not got the reel roolsroyce he asked for. We then hay argument that each has more presents than the other. A Mery Xmas everybode sa scrooge in the end but we just call each other clot-faced wets so are you you you you pointing with our horny fingers it is very joly i must sa. In the end i wear molesworth 2’s cowboy suit and he pla with my air gun so all is quiet.
Then comes DINNER.
This is super as there are turkey crackers nuts cream plum puding jely and everything. We wash it down with a litle ginger ale but grown ups all drink wine ugh and this make all the old lades and grans very sprightly i must sa. They sa how sweet we are they must be dotty until pater raps the table and look v. solemn. He holds up his glass and sa in a low voice The QUEEN. Cheers cheers cheers for the queen we all drink and hurra for england.
Then pater sa in much lower voice ABSENT FRIENDS and everyone else sa absent friends absent friends absent friends ect. and begin blubbing. In fact it do not seme that you can go far at xmas time without blubbing of some sort and when they listen to the wireless in the afternoon all about the lonely shepherd and the lighthousemen they are in floods of tears.
Still xmas is a good time with all those presents and good food and i hope it will never die out or at any rate not until i am grown up and have to pay for it all. So ho skip and away the next thing we shall be taken to peter pan for a treat so brace up brace up.
Obligatory festive stomp to South Park. Remaining undergraduates have bought up Tesco’s baking trays for sledges; small dogs in dog-Barbours circle. One northern slope has been designated best for sledging; a husky howls and then barrels off into the flurry.
Subsequent festive stomp round the St Mary & St John Churchyard: lucky wife gets to join me on never-ending quest to locate grave of grocer’s wife who murdered entire family in 1909. Enormous teenage snowball fight develops on western side of graveyard.
Make chilly progress down Manzil Way. Pass the East Oxford Health Centre, surely the only health centre in Britain with its own kebab shop on the ground floor. Behind the mosque, the Asian Cultural Centre is running a Christmas Mina Bazaar which, although much incommoded by snow, includes many small Asian children in Christmas jumpers, colouring in pictures of festive trees and snowmen. For £1.50, eat enormous bowl of chana chaat; try to answer organisers’ question ‘Is it spicy enough?’ without tears. Promise to come back for the Women’s Festival in March. Downstairs, see the burned-out oven from Mrs Smith’s Oxford Community Soup Kitchen; the oven exploded some weeks ago after twenty-five years of service – for a video about Icolyn Smith’s soup kitchen, watch the video below.
Back on Cowley Road, one of the unclassifiable quasi-hardware stores is selling plastic sledges for £12 each. A slowly-cruising, very ancient car boasts a snowman on the actual bonnet. A boy in football-strip pyjamas has been locked out of his shared house, to the great joy of onlookers and indeed his housemates. A snow-plough gritting van zooms down the road towards Cowley centre, plough well above the ground and no grit spraying.
When we return to the front of the flats, a group of boys is building a snowman on a sledge, complete with hat and wine bottle. They are ecstatic to be noticed. The snowman’s name is Inigo, after a friend who is apparently ‘a bit of a wino’ and ‘has been to Siberia’. When I ask if they’re students (they are implausibly pink-cheeked and wholesome), they say ‘Yes’ and ‘Well, sort of’, then confess to being sixth-formers at a local school (the snowman’s name should indicate which). They pose with alacrity for photographs and would probably do so for hours.
Tomorrow it’s library times to read about severed heads and painted faces (oh yeah), but until then, enjoy a much more serene version of snow-based fun with this gorgeous song from the best Christmas film not to feature Muppets, White Christmas (1954): ‘Snow!’.
I am newly-returned from the festive shebang that was Christmas With The Oxford Gospel Choir, starring wife, >70 singers, and, crucially, two seven-year-old bellringers plucked from the audience to jingle away with such intensity that the evening became a Richard Curtis film (cheerily so, not Emma Thompson vs. adultery) and I became Christmassy mulled tears.
I should say TV’s Own Oxford Gospel Choir, since their Events Choir were recently finalists of Songs of Praise’s BBC Gospel Choir of the Year, and here’s a clip of their second performance! Solo by the incredible Lizzie Butler.
If you’re local to Oxford and keen to sing gospel music, I should stress that – despite the programme’s tone, it’s not a religious/evangelical choir (or I wouldn’t endorse it): the members are of all faiths and none. They perform at a wide range of events, from charity fundraisers and weddings to Oxford Pride and the Christmas Lights Festival. As a bonus, here’s a link to one of their star soloists, the staggeringly talented Helen Ploix (primarily, in our house, of ‘Is Helen going to sing How I Got Over? in this concert? If not, WHY NOT?’ fame, why does every concert not include this) – check out her version of Hallelujah, I Love Him So.
The evening was fantastically festive. On the way home, wife and I discovered that the doomed tapas bar opposite our flat is now inexplicably a doomed Sri Lankan restaurant, and now we’re eating Pringles and recapping Strictly. Truly, the spirit of Christmas is nigh.
I spent some of this evening in Headington, helping to pack shoeboxes for Project Shoebox Oxford. This brilliant initiative assembles donated toiletries, cosmetics, small gifts and confectionery into decorated shoeboxes to be given to people in need. I went along in the expectation I’d be packing gifts for women in domestic violence shelters, but in fact there were also boxes for men, children, and babies. Most of the boxes go to Oxfordshire Domestic Abuse Services, but the shoebox gifts also help Simon House, the Gatehouse, and Asylum Welcome, the subject of an earlier Advent post. Simon House is a 52-bed, mixed-gender hostel for local rough sleepers and the vulnerably housed – which is due to be ‘decommissioned’ in April 2018, because, hey, it’s not like homelessness is getting worse every night in the city centre, or anything. The Gatehouse is perhaps Oxford’s best-known homeless initiative; a drop-in cafe for homeless people over the age of 25, at St Giles’ Hall on the Woodstock Road.
Volunteer packers are given a list and then go ‘shopping’ through the huge numbers of donations for the essentials, which (from memory) include toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, face wash, flannel, soap, lotion, comb and hairbrush, sanitary products, hair products, cosmetics and makeup remover, and sweets [ETA: after writing this, I found there were guidelines here]. Those covered, you fill up the box with treats and whatever you think would surprise and please the recipient. Finally, you write and enclose a Christmas card, seal your box with an elastic band, and label it.
What really charmed me was the excellent quality of most of the donations. Of course, value or own-brand products are all many people can afford to give, and everything helps, but it was really exciting to put together an amazing box with treats from e.g. Kiehl’s or Clarins for a woman in a refuge, or to give the kind of colourful Body Shop and Soap & Glory I still used to enjoy to a seven-year-old girl. There were Braintree Bamboo Socks, Ted Baker body sprays, several hundred nail varnishes, and all sorts of pieces of jewellery and toys.
Project Shoebox Oxford’s ‘Packing Parties’ are running this weekend and into next week, with the first batch of boxes going to Oxfordshire Domestic Abuse Services soon. Party listings are here, and the location is easy to find on New High Street, Headington. Tea, coffee, custard creams, and technically also some fruit are much in evidence. There is still a HUGE amount of stuff to pack, so do come along if you can! Goods can also be brought to the party and put straight into boxes. Based on my limited experience of tonight, I can offer a few quick tips…
Particularly useful/we seemed to keep running short of:
Face wipes and makeup remover (I cannot overstate how desirable these became, I haven’t searched for anything so assiduously since Beanie Baby-collecting in the late 1990s).
Sanitary products in sizes/absorbencies less than super/max (for modesty/privacy, it’s quite nice to have a little purse or similar to keep these in)
Combs and hairbrushes, see specifically the ecstatic joy of locating the latter
Stationery, especially for children (see also: crayons)
Small children’s books
Shampoo/conditioner in sizes of 350 ml or less (larger ones make the boxes very heavy, take up room, and are difficult to store. Bigger ones already donated will go to other charities).
There were, conversely, VAST amounts of body lotion, moisturiser, hand cream, nail varnish, and soap.
For safety reasons which require little imagination, charities ask people to avoid giving sharp or glass items, e.g. mirrors, tweezers, reading glasses, razors, or scissors. They also have to refuse alcohol, or items with sexual imagery on the packaging. Cosmetics are hugely popular, but avoid foundation, concealer, or other products which depend on the lady in question being a certain skin colour (Project Shoebox Oxford will put together a grab bag, though, for refuge residents to sift through themselves, but it’s not a shoebox item per se). It should go without saying (AND YET), but used/opened products are no good at all, look at your life and your choices if you think otherwise. Glittery/messy/unwrapped products can also wreak havoc.
Many thanks to my lovely colleague Catherine Redford, whose support of Project Shoebox first alerted me to said project’s existence. If you can’t make it to a party, but would like to support Project Shoebox Oxford, you can donate money online here. I hope that everyone who receives a box is helped and pleased by it, and that all the recipients are in their own homes, facing much brighter futures, by this time next year.
The fifth day of Advent belongs to poet Christina Rossetti, born on 5th December 1830. She has been much on my mind today, as admissions season continues. Back in 2004, when I was interviewing at Oriel, Christina Rossetti was one of two women nineteenth-century poets of whom I’d actually heard (the other was Emily Dickinson), and she crops up with candidates – especially women – today.
This week, I have also been spending my evenings at Keble, whose chapel is home to ‘The Light of the World’, Holman Hunt’s 1853 painting, whose Christ has the face and head of Christina herself; her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) co-founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with Holman Hunt and Millais.
‘The Light of the World’ was one of relatively few paintings that I could identify before university, partly because one of our schoolteachers was sufficiently obsessed to give an annual assembly on the picture, and partly because the PRB were amply exhibited in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (I also knew some other paintings, e.g. Guernica and some Van Gogh, and – less usefully – such items of folk art as The Really Big Pigs at Compton Verney).
Keble Chapel is sublime. No other college chapel changes so much with the weather. In sunshine, the mosaics glitter like a Children’s Illustrated Bible, and during a thunderstorm, it turns into Byzantium.
Christina Rossetti’s best-known poetic contribution to Christmas is ‘In The Bleak Mid-Winter’ (1872) now a much-loved carol that I remember learning in primary school, with appropriately mordaunt sigh-singing on ‘snow on snow, snow on snooow‘ throughout December. It’s the carol that springs horribly to mind when I witness homelessness exposed to a ‘frosty wind’ and ‘earth stood hard as iron’.
Rossetti’s other Christmas poem, though, is ‘Christmas Eve’ (undated pre-1886). I love it and it’s reproduced below.
Christmas hath a darkness
Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas hath a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas hath a beauty
Lovelier than the world can show:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.
Earth, strike up your music,
Birds that sing and bells that ring;
Heaven hath answering music
For all Angels soon to sing:
Earth, put on your whitest
Bridal robe of spotless snow:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.
I love this poem for holding in tension the tragic framing of the Christmas story, seen here as chillness, coldness and poverty – with the joy of the season of Christ’s birth. I struggle with the joyless snobbery of some Christian commentaries on Advent. No, it’s not Christmas yet, yes Advent is penitential, and if the ‘commercialisation’ of Christmas is ‘depressing’, it’s perhaps rather less depressing than e.g. the ongoing sexual abuse scandals, the existence of Trump, and the rollout of Universal Credit. The world and the winter are cold and dark, and I am both doggedly Anglican and fond of tinsel. There are, it seems to me, so many more Christian things to do in December than grumble about secularised Advent: donate to your foodbank, bother your MP, chat to your neighbour, support a charity that helps those most vulnerable to the inequalities Christmas highlights. Light some lights and eat some chocolate. If you share the chocolate that is basically A Moral Good too.
In church this morning, in lieu of a sermon, there was an interview with John Fenning of Asylum Welcome, about the charity’s work with Syrian refugees in Oxford. Since September 2015, seventeen refugee families have been settled in Oxford (here is a Jan 2017 story about one of them), with the help of the charity and its supporters (among them the University Church). They come with nothing, often via other countries including Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon. John’s job concentrates especially on working with the families in their first few weeks in Britain. He collects from the airport, helps make their accommodation more homely, takes them to GP appointments, tries to make sure their benefits come…reasonably swiftly… and sorts out school places. In the longer term, the charity supports community initiatives which put Oxford’s Syrians in touch with each other – with the growing numbers of Syrians, one especially important project is a Syrian Women’s Group, which meets every week. All of the refugees have experienced trauma; some, of course, have PTSD.
John stressed that although there is (as he diplomatically put it) a range of feelings about/responses to the presence of refugees in the UK, Oxford’s Syrian refugees have generally been made extremely welcome by their immediate neighbours. He also emphasised the benefits to Oxford of having a growing Syrian community. Many refugees are former business owners keen to continue their entrepreneurship in the UK (we already have several successful Syrian-run ventures in East Oxford); they bring amazing food, arts, and craftsmanship; they are incredibly hospitable. Among the new community is a talented poet, Amina Abou Kerech, who won this year’s Betjeman Prize for Poetry.
If you’d like to mark the first Sunday in Advent by donating to Asylum Welcome, you can do so here. The charity provides a huge range of services, including a food bank (see below), weekly lunch club, recycled bicycles, haircuts and work clothes, employment assistance, and specific schemes for young people, detainees, and families.