It has been my privilege in the past twelve months to travel widely throughout the world. Since the summer, for example, I have been in Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Australia. This has been the result of invitations to lecture, speak and preach on subjects relating to children and childhood. There have been many opportunities to spend time with families, communities and neighbourhoods, and to enter into prolonged conversations with longstanding friends, students and colleagues, that have delved deep into culture, history and ideologies.And although the schedules have usually been pretty full and tight, it has occasionally been possible to visit and enjoy some special places. I think in Sri Lanka of sitting on a beach south of Colombo as the sun set, and of watching the waterfalls cascading down through the lush mountain slopes en route for Kandy; of a day walking around the Buddhist centre of Chiang Mai in Thailand; of visits to the main Durbar of Kathmandu with time to sit alongside the shrines as devotees went through rituals rich with religious significance for them, of watching the sun rise on the Himalayas; of exploring the University of New South Wales in Sydney and much more.
One of the questions I was sometimes asked was where I would spend Christmas. It was a logical enquiry based on the assumption that there must be a good chance it would be away from home. And it made me realise that I have never spent Christmas anywhere but at Mill Grove. What’s more, I can’t conceive of ever being anywhere else. For me Christmas is about being with my personal and extended family of those who belong to what we sometimes call the “Mill Grove family”.
If my involvement with the residential community of Mill Grove were to do with work and employment I suppose you could consider Christmas here as being “on duty”: and there can’t be many people who have never spent a Christmas as it were, “off duty”. But Mill Grove is in fact my life. (When I am asked what my work is I usually reply that I am a lecturer and writer.) Mill Grove is my home. And with that in mind it doesn’t sound too strange I guess to suggest that there is where I always long to be at Christmas time.
So what goes on here over the Christmas holiday that makes it so attractive? We have an open home, welcoming members of the extended family and friends to come and stay. That may sound an incidental aspect of Christmas, but I feel it is a real blessing to be in a place that is bursting with life, and the sound of children playing. I am conscious that for many Christmas is a lonely time and the television – despite the best intentions of the producers – may only serve to exacerbate a sense of loneliness and isolation.
And then we have traditions passed on through three and four generations. Over a period of 108 years they have become imbued with layers of associations and meaning. Let me run through some of them with you. Throughout Advent we have a wreath with a candle for every day in Advent. We take it in turn to light the candles, and while they are spreading their warm light throughout the dining room we have a reading from the Bible setting the Incarnation in its context.
On Christmas Eve there is a communion service where we spend time praying for members of the Mill Grove family around the world. It is a gentle, peaceful time, which serves as a contrast to the boisterous atmosphere of much of the rest of the celebration. On Christmas Day there are stocking and presents, traditional meals, watch the Queen’s Speech, and then in the evening we go into the two neighbouring streets to sing carols to neighbours. We are not collecting for anything or anyone: just sharing something of the Christian story and message with others.
On Boxing Day there is a long party full of familiar games. There is a football match outside. Between the two courses at dinner there is an extraordinary din which accompanies the Christmas pudding’s arrival. After tea comes the yearly pantomime. This year we are practising Aladdin. That is followed by carols by candlelight and a Christingle service. And then there are more games for several hours before a supper. At the close of supper there is the opportunity for people old and young to make a speech. It sounds very formal, but mixes touching memories and thoughts with jokes and spontaneous fun.
Over the two days there are probably between 100 and 150 family and friends who have stayed or popped in for part of the time. The whole place is decorated lavishly, and the dining room is festooned with Christmas cards from around the world.
And this is where I have been, and what I have done every Christmas of my life. I am not suggesting that it would be everyone’s cup of tea, but this for me is Christmas. What’s more I know that there are many others around the world connected with Mill Grove who would dearly love to spend Christmas with us, but are prevented from doing so, by distance and commitments where they live.
I know that some people go abroad for Christmas and perhaps stay in a hotel or go on a cruise. And I can imagine some of the enchanting places that they might visit. But for me that wouldn’t be Christmas.
And I wonder whether this helps to account for what Mill Grove is. Christmas comes just once a year but it is of immense significance as a yearly festival. We look forward to it and prepare for it together for weeks, and we talk about it long afterwards. It sits alongside other special events like Easter, Our Day, the summer holidays, Bonfire Night, Founders’ Day, but it’s possibly the most special.
It’s as child-friendly as can be, and celebrates the birth of a special baby. Perhaps there’s a special synergy involved. Not just a holiday, but a holy day.
Anyway, there’s still quite a bit to be done in preparation for this year’s celebrations so I must leave the column there.
Wishing you a happy Christmas wherever you are, and whatever your cultural and personal traditions and your religious heritage. And hoping to catch up with you again in the New Year.