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.
ME: [Emotional] Because 1888 is my favourite Victorian year.
1888 is the best my favourite Victorian year because it combines Ellen Terry’s Lady Macbeth, the stage version of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the Whitechapel killings. You are probably wondering why this is Christmassy. Macbeth opened on 29 December 1888, with coverage boosted by the traditionally slow news week between Christmas and New Year, and the feverish public interest – amounting to hysteria – in yet another murder story. Mr Hyde had given London its first fictional psychopath, and medical theories of the Ripper as a gentleman-by-day, murderer-by-night, seemed to have offered a real-life version of Hyde. Now the stars of London’s theatre, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, were starring as the ascendant, murderous Macbeths, pushing the orthodoxy of the Victorian power couple to its limits. As the Pall Mall Gazette put it, it was ‘Horrible murder without. Horrible murder within’.
AGAIN, this might not seem EXCEPTIONALLY FESTIVE. And yet, researching this foggy, mysterious Christmas for my first book (if you want more, try Chapter 2) developed my obsession with Victorian periodicals. I hope you love them too – in any case, welcome to Advent 1888.
Christmas Books (Pall Mall Gazette, 1 December): aspirational parents were recommended such ‘books for Boys’ as Joseph Hatton’s Captured By Cannibals: ‘Though the book is a work of imagination, “there is not a single incident” – so Mr. Hatton tells us on the authority of actual travellers – “which might not have happened”‘. Captured by Cannibals included some ‘very spirited drawings’. Also praised was Tom’s Nugget by Professor J.F. Hodgetts of the Sunday School Union, in which the hero ‘meets some very rough customers in the bush, and passes through several thrilling adventures, which the author graphically describes. A fine moral tone pervades the book’. A book on Juvenile Literature As It Is surveyed Victorian children, revealing that ‘It is notable that the girls should read the Boy’s Own, while not a boy admitted preferring the Girl’s Own‘ (Pall Mall Gazette, 15 December).
Madame Mariette D’Auban was advertising for ‘Ladies of the Ballet, for Good Christmas Engagements, London and Provinces’ via her academy in White Hart Street, according to the Era (1 December). By 10 December, a festive-feeling Pall Mall Gazette was acclaiming the fashionable Christmas cracker as the ‘one glittering article, light almost as air, and uniting in it more colours than the rainbow, which pushes its way every year more and more to the front among the charming trifles without which no merry Christmas is complete’. Praising the factory of ‘Mr. Tom Smith […] in Wilson-street, E.C.‘, the Gazette singled out ‘the “Palmistry cracker,” […] each cracker containing a diagram of a hand on which the various lines which are fraught with meaning are clearly traced and explained in rhyme’.
The Guernsey Star, meanwhile, waxed pragmatic over the Christmas card: ‘The Christmas card so thoroughly suits an age which, though very busy, has very definite notions on taste, that we need not wonder at its popularity. From being a fashion, it has become something like a national custom […] On the whole, the Christmas card industry is a decidedly creditable offshoot of the artistic movement which is doing so much to disseminate sound views on colour, design and workmanship among all classes of our population’ (Star, 11 December). Meanwhile, ‘the annual Christmas sale of fat stock, the property of the Queen’ saw cross-bred lambs fetch 125 shillings per head at Windsor (Morning Post, 13 December).
Charitable appeals were everywhere. On a single morning – 15 December – the front page of the Morning Post gratefully acknowledged subscriptions for the Royal Albert Orphan Asylum, the British Home For Incurables (slogan: ‘HELPLESS! HOPELESS! HOMELESS!’), the ‘Midnight Meeting Movement’, and Chelsea Hospital for Women (this was in amongst the usual amazing mix of Victorian adverts, including for ‘a thoroughly good Select Finishing School and kind Home near the Crystal Palace, where [an Officer’s] delicate daughter has recently been’).
But above all, the public wanted to know what celebrities would receive for Christmas. The Duchess of Connaught had received ‘an umbrella with a solid silver and enamelled handle set with a valuable gold watch’, while the lucky Princess of Wales was due to get a writing table ‘of mahogany and marquetry’, which cost £86.
Then as now, ‘Dolls could be had up to any price’, with the very best dolls’ house, ‘a decent detached villa for a ladylike doll’ costing £12, including kitchen fires ‘lighted by small spirit lamps’.
Celebrity tastes in perfume were also key, and it gives me great joy to end with two of my favourite Victorian ladies: Lillie Langtry and the Lyceum Lady Macbeth herself, Ellen Terry: ‘Ellen Terry and Mrs. Langtry both like opoponax, the scent sold by Piesse and Lubin in New Bond-street, who supply Mrs. Gladstone with her fumigating ribbon and the Queen with frangipanni’. Oponomax was a type of sweet myrrh popular with Victorian perfumers, and ‘Bouquet Opoponax’ (recently reconstructed in New Jersey) had become a bestseller for Piesse and Lubin. A similar scented candle is available from Diptyque!
Poor Mrs Gladstone. Fumigating ribbon doesn’t sound as nice as opoponax, or frangipanni. Let’s hope Mr Gladstone took some time off from rescuing prostitutes and ballet dancers (no, really) to buy her some perfume of her own.
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.
Thirteen is not a number we associate with Christmas. Twelve days thereof; three kings and/or ships; the Christmas Number One; December the twenty-fifth; zero good reasons to consume a sprout. Terrifying stats blizzards tell us we’ll eat 30,000,000 mince pies in the UK this Yuletide, and there’s the ever-decreasing number of shopping days and pounds in our bank accounts. Thirteen, meanwhile, is categorically not festive – it’s the number of unlucky Thursdays and Olivia Wilde’s Huntingdon’s-dogged heroine in House.
And yet thirteen, it seems, is deeply Christmassy – if you know where to look. In Iceland, in the last thirteen days before Christmas, lucky Icelandic children are visited by each member of the team of the Thirteen Yule Lads, a group of half-trolls that sounds marvellously like a seasonal Corbyn meme. The Yule Lads fill good children’s shoes with toys, and bad children’s shoes with raw potatoes. It gets better: each of the Yule Lads has a different personality, and thus a preferred tipple must be left for them, not unlike Father Christmas’s cheery mince pies and sherry. Except, oh, the Yule Lads include Sheep Worrier (Stekkjarstaur) who wants milk, and Spoon Licker (Pvoruskleikir) who requires a butter-covered spoon. Candle Beggar (Kertasnikir) will go to town on your beeswax when he comes on Christmas Eve, and until their cultural reimagining in recent years (which has seen red Santa suits replace ominous rags), the Yule Lads were accompanied by Yule Cat, who liked to steal children (making these festive kittens look positively well-behaved). The Lads’ troll mother Gryla eats children too. More than seventy Yule Lads have been recorded in Icelandic folklore, but today’s thirteen-strong line-up also features Pot Scraper (Pottaskefill), Bowl Licker (Askasleikir) and the ominous-sounding Meat Hook and Doorway Sniffer (Ketkrókur and Gáttaþefur, respectively). Which Yule Lad Are You? asks Buzzfeed, festively.
All right, maybe the Icelandic Huldufólk, the ‘hidden people’ of the country’s mythology, aren’t as unequivocally seasonal as all that. A far less sinister Christmas thirteen comes from Provence – originally from nineteenth-century Marseille. From Christmas Eve to 27th December, families set out lei tretze desserts in Occitan – thirteen festive desserts representing Jesus and the twelve apostles. The exact composition of these puddings varies by village or family, but – beyond the glorious Yule Log – certain ingredients carry symbolic meaning. Raisins, hazelnuts, figs, and almonds symbolise the four mendicant monastic orders in the Roman Catholic Church: Dominicans, Augustines, Franciscans, and Carmelite. Soft and hard nougats symbolise good and evil. Fougasse, an olive oil flatbread, is torn (rather than cut) then spread with grape jam, to protect family finances in the coming year. Seasonal fruits including green melon from Cavaillon is also popular. Dates symbolise the land of Christ’s birth. Unfortunately for any Pvoruskleikir visiting their French penpals, butter-covered spoons aren’t included.
Would you rather be a Provencal child or an Icelandic one? Thirteen desserts sounds fairly brilliant, but then, so does thirteen days of presents. As long as a candle-munching, sheep-worrying demi-troll doesn’t feed you to his cat.
Recipe: equal parts brandy and vodka; apples; as much sugar as seems plausible; 1 stick cinnamon; 1 star anise; twice as much nutmeg. Maturation: 6 weeks. Appearance and Colour: sandalwood; simmering; amber; every Medieval picture of St Joseph Bouquet: church pews; alcoholism; The Forest Primeval, fruit (?) Mouthfeel: Scathing, with hints of huntsman; Signs You May Be Dying In A Victorian Novel; sombre, with notes of Heathcliff; holly; the Bayley poem where she gets locked in a trunk; standoffish ghosts; the theory and practice of a ‘family retainer’ Finish: It was Christmas Eve, babe/In the drunk tank
Clementine and Cranberry Vodka:
Recipe: Cranberries (1 pkt thereof); the zest of three clementines and then the juice because you got bored; enough vodka to cover all of that; Some Gin; 1 stick cinnamon; 1 nutmeg (grated); some marmalade; it’ll probably be fine Maturation: 6 weeks Appearance and Colour: Ribena’s trashy sister Bouquet: plausibility; wassail; polka; Dita Von Teese in Zac Posen Pre-Fall 2018; any Robert Graves poem; My Barbie Kremlin; syrup; The Christmas Candle Mouthfeel: silken; festive; would not be out of place at Old Fezziwig’s Christmas Party; frolicsome, with hints of vodka Finish: I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day
Apple Brandy No. 2:
Recipe: 4 small green apples, rustically* (*unevenly) chopped; brandy; jerez; Some Gin; 1 star anise; 12 tbps sugar; 1 stick cinnamon (whole); A Secret Ingredient; gin again. Maturation: A fortnight and odd days Appearance and Colour: Apple Brandy No. 1’s blonde cousin, who lies about her age Bouquet: aspiration; The Mayor of Casterbridge; an altercation at the County Fair; sacrilege; Christmas At Brambly Hedge; Sufjan Stevens; apples (?) Mouthfeel: sprightliness; sugar mice; seed pearls; pince-nez; liquorice; green apples; pink elephants; the comic subplot of a Jane Austen novel; After-Eights; unsteadiness; The Land. Finish: I saw three ships come sailing in/On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day (actual ships: 0).
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.
I was going to tell you about this awesome poem about Serbia and the Annunciation and, I don’t know, man’s inhumanity to man, but after a trillion interviews, chicken Kiev, and a vintage episode of Silent Witness, that kind of Quality Content is beyond me. So you get to enjoy my carefully-curated edit of videos of cats being little bastards with Christmas trees.
All the best cats (inc. the late Daisy, 50% Queen Victoria, 50% Henry VIII, a short-legged tortoiseshell who never shut up) cannot be trusted with a Christmas tree. If you’re not pulling yards of tinsel from their throat, they’re shredding parcels, chasing baubles, or sitting twelve feet from a swaying disaster, wearing an insolent expression that demands of you: WHAT?
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.