Sunday, 18 December 2011

Fourth advent

It's the fourth Advent, and we've been with Brother Edward and Sascha at Till Towers in Thaxted. When I was young, the four advents - or four Sundays before Christmas - were always something that we marked. On the morning of the first advent, we'd go for a long walk across the misty fields to find holly, fern, berries and ivy to use as the basis for an advent crown. All manner of green stuff got ripped from hedgerows and gardens across Higham Ferrers and mounted in oasis alongside four proud red candles. It was one of the most exciting routines that we had as kids. It signified that Christmas was very nearly with us... After making the crown, we'd light one of the candles and leave it burning whilst we ate our roast dinner - a nut roast for me and my Mum - on a table which had been set up specially in front of the open fire in the sitting room. On the second advent we'd light the first candle again alongside a second one, and so on, until the last advent meal when Edward and I would battle over who got to light all four candles for the first time. We'd then go to a carol concert and sing songs about a bloke called Jesus who shared my mate Stephen's birthday.

Brother Edward is spending Christmas this year with Sascha's family in the Black Forest. It'll be the first time in our lives that we'll be apart on the day, so today was our alternative Christmas. We exchanged presents. I got a lot of delicious chocolate and an amazing Poole pottery plate.

We had a little stroll around the town and saw some brilliant houses which were lit up like space ships with hundreds of waving elves, flashing stars and nodding reindeer.

On the way home, we paid our annual homage to the ultimate Christmas House; so ultimate, in fact, that it's known amongst my friends simply as The Christmas House. Its owners activate the lights on December 1st, and they delight passers-by for a full month. They encourage visitors to pull up outside, pop in and wonder around a courtyard filled with thousands of tiny twinkling lights and hundreds of projections of angels, snowmen and semi-religious-looking Santas. Christmas music is piped out of speakers. A full nativity scene rests on an ornamental fish pond. It's gone beyond ghastly and tawdry into an epic world of great beauty. Children stand and stare at every corner with open mouths; the absolute magic reflecting in their eyes.

It's times like this that I remember the true meaning of Christmas, namely the joy of sparkling lights and the effect that beautiful shiny things, and buckets of snow and wonderful mythical stories, have on a child's imagination. The whole Mary and Joseph story can be used to trigger all sorts of interesting paintings and songs.

350 years ago, Pepys spent much of the day at The Wardrobe, the official residence of his patron, Lord Sandwich, who was still in Portugal. Pepys felt responsible for looking after Lady Jemima Sandwich whilst her husband was over seas, and she became increasingly dependent on his help. In later years, when the Sandwich star began to descend, she would even borrow money from him to see her through leaner times.

The Christmas House

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