Saturday 23 December 2017

Best Christmas Ever

Crossing the Line - part 8

Celebrating Christmas with a young family is a bit of a challenge for most clergy. Christmas is one of the busiest times of the year.  Multiple carol services, Christingles and school assemblies all take their toll and that’s before the real festival begins.  Add to that a couple of crib services on Christmas Eve, a midnight Mass, a Christmas morning dash around the benefice and the pastoral work which doesn’t diminish just because its Christmas and most clergy are knackered by lunch-time on Christmas Day – which is the earliest they get to spend any time with their own family.  After lunch all they want to do it sleep.

My dad only had two places of worship to look after when I was a child.  Even so, from 5pm on Christmas Eve, it was almost non-stop until 1pm on Christmas day.  It would start with a Crib Service and move on to Midnight Mass which was always packed.  After getting to bed at about 2am, he would be up before 6am to be ready to lead services at 7:30, 8:30, 9:30 and 11am.  It was worse if someone died just before Christmas.  You can’t say ‘I’ll come and see you in a few days’ when it is probably the most tragic time of the year to lose a loved one.

Today, clergy often have a lot more churches to look after. In towns and especially in villages, vicars can easily have 4, 5, 6, or 7 churches to look after.  The pressure and the demands are huge.

So where does family fit?  Where do your own family figure in this pumped up programme of frenetic activity?

When I was a child my parents decided on our own family solution.  We celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve.

After lunch, for every Christmas I can remember, my dad would go up to the parish church to set things up for the services later on.  He would take me with him to help.  I would put out Christian Aid envelopes in the pews and tidy the kneelers, while he made sure everything else was ready.

I did this happily because I knew what came next.  When everything was done, we would stand together at the altar step and he would say a Christmas prayer with me.  Then we would go home and when we walked into the living room, all the Christmas presents would have magically appeared under the tree (thanks mum) ready to be opened.  Mum and dad would pour each other a small glass of wine and our Christmas began!  During the two hours that followed, they wouldn’t answer the phone or the doorbell.  It was our little oasis of family Christmas and I got to open my presents a day early!  I also had two hours with my mum and dad, to set up and play with whatever toys I got – very important for an only child – before dad’s demanding Christmas timetable kicked back into life again.

There were some issues to face of course.  I have to say that I can never remember believing in Father Christmas.  That didn’t stop mum and dad taking me to see Father Christmas in the lead-up to Christmas, whether at the village Christmas Fair or at one of the big department stores in Manchester but I always knew that all the stuff about chimneys, flying sleighs and reindeer were just stories.  They were fun but not true.  I also knew that other children thought they were true and that it would be cruel to put doubt in their minds, so I didn’t!

One Christmas however, when I was 7 or 8, this all went very wrong!  At an end of term school assembly my dad was talking about Christmas as a time for being grateful, and he put in a line saying “Some of us know who to be grateful to for our presents at Christmas”.  He thought that would be sufficiently obtuse for the younger children, while also being capable of being understood by the older ones.  He was wrong.

A young girl went home in tears to mum saying, “The vicar said there’s no Father Christmas!”  She was heartbroken and unfortunately, her parents were among those who had objected to PCC meetings being at the Vicarage because they should be held on neutral ground.  Things moved rather quickly – amazingly quickly in an age before social media and tweets going viral.

The photograph taken for the Daily Mail.
Her parents phoned the Bolton Evening News who must have been having a slack news day.  By that evening it was in the paper – Vicar spoils Christmas!  By later that evening the phone was ringing almost non-stop, as other local press and then the national newspapers jumped on the bandwagon.  The next day the Daily Mail sent a photographer to get a photo of dad with me and some of my Christmas presents from the previous year.  The Bishop of Manchester was contacted and asked to comment on his wayward priest.  Apparently he replied that he was not aware that belief in Father Christmas was an integral part of the Christian faith.  In his defence, dad said only that he had talked about being grateful, not wanting to give the press anything which would add fuel to the fire.

In a couple of days it was all over.  Normality returned.

But the very best Christmas I can remember, didn’t occur until I was 19 years old.

It was my first year away from home.  I had joined Scargill House in the Yorkshire Dales – a community of mainly young people who welcomed up to 90 guests at a time for parish weekends, retreats, creative breaks and holiday house-parties.  Christmas was one such holiday time and 2 or 3 days before Christmas the house was full with a variety of people from older people who lived alone to young families getting away from it all.  The whole community had been rehearsing a Christmas play for weeks, telling the Christmas story in a more contemporary style to present to the guests. The whole house was decorated for the season.  As Christmas approached the temperature dropped, and by Christmas Eve there was a couple of inches of snow on the ground.  It was going to be my first white Christmas! 

On the evening of Christmas Eve, everyone went to the Midnight Mass in Kettlewell Parish Church.  A beautiful candlelit service in a picture-perfect Christmas card scene.  The sky had mostly cleared with just a few clouds providing intermittent snow flurries.  The moon was almost full and moonlight reflected off the snow covered hillsides making the whole valley shine with a silvery glow.

To get to the service, my roommate (Simon) and I got a lift into Kettlewell in the community Land Rover along with four of our older guests who didn’t drive.  They were all in their 70’s and 80’s and we crammed into this Land Rover in close fellowship to get there.

At the end of the service however, we had a problem.  With the largely clear skies, the temperature had dropped to around -5oC and as we all got back into the Land Rover, the driver put the key into the ignition and tried to turn it.  It wouldn’t move.  Not being one to give up, he applied a bit of brute force… and the key broke off in the ignition.  We were stranded.

Everyone else had already gone by the time this happened, so the only solution seemed to be for the driver to walk the mile or so back to Scargill, wake a couple of people up who had cars, and ask them to come and pick us up.

After he set off it soon became apparent that staying and waiting for him was not a good plan either.  The Land Rover was freezing cold, even with us all huddled together in it. Simon and I would have been ok but the elderly guests began feel the cold even more than we did.  Then one of them piped up “I’m not going to sit here and freeze.  I’m going to walk!”  The others agreed and Simon and I were left with the dilemma of what to do.  We couldn’t stop them but we were worried that walking over a mile along snow covered roads was also a risky business for the four older people in their 70’s and 80’s.

As they all got out, we knew we needed to go with them.  In the starlit peace of the early hours of Christmas morning, the six of us walked back along the snowy lanes in crisp moonlight with the occasional snow flurry to make the winter scene complete.

The guests were absolutely amazing.  With Simon and I linking arms with the less mobile to steady them, a kind of Dunkirk spirit kicked in and we walked slowly through the snow singing Christmas carols.  We got almost all the way back to Scargill before the headlights of cars appeared to take us back the rest of the way.

We all went up to the main house and made Hot Chocolate and Horlicks to warm everyone up.  Far from complaining, they were elated by their Christmas adventure and their victory over the elements.

When Simon and I finally went back to our room in Community House at the bottom of the drive, it was about 2:30am.  When we trudged up the stairs to the room we shared at the top of the house, we found two Christmas stockings of presents hanging from our door handle.   It was a complete and lovely surprize and we sat on our beds unwrapping chocolates, novelties and two miniature bottles of scotch whisky.  We chinked the bottles together and drunk the lot.  Some of my friends know my love of Single Malt Whisky but will not know that it began on that night.

We finally settled down sometime after 3am for a few hours sleep, before getting up to help prepare for breakfast and wake the guests by going around the house singing Christmas carols at 8am.

No Christmas has ever come close to that.  The beauty of the moonlit night; the snow on the ground; the spirit and determination of those four elderly guests and the camaraderie they found together in adversity; the unexpected presents hanging from our door handle;  they all came together to make that the best Christmas ever!


  1. What a lovely story and what a good story teller you are, I could see and feel that snow!

    1. Thank you. The memory is so vivid and joyful. I'm glad it came across.