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Done to death by little donkey

18 December 2015

For clergy and others involved in church life, Christmas is, at the very least, an occupational hazard. How do they celebrate? Caroline Chartres finds out

Song of the angels? The chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

Song of the angels? The chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

“ARE you going away for Christmas?” It’s remarkable how often that enquiry is addressed to the clergy or their families, followed by an embarrassed laugh as the speaker remembers. “Oh, no, I’m sorry — it’s your busy time, isn’t it?”

Perhaps there should be a bumper sticker, “Clergy are for life, not just for Christmas.” It is, of course, true that Christmas is busy, although it isn’t the festival itself so much as the fact that it crowns a month of trying to combine Advent and a proper period of preparation with simultaneously dinting the sod twice nightly in carol services and Christmas festivities for every imaginable institution from early December.

Given the extra pressures on clergy, most of the domestic preparation, unsurprisingly, tends to devolve to the spouse (one says wryly, “I don’t know if the Rector ever missed having to do the last-minute present-wrapping, putting up the stockings, milk, and mince pies”).

Even when those spouses are employed elsewhere, they tend to arrange time off “to be back to shepherd the flock of sheep, shepherds, and angels at the crib service, and then clear the straw and dung before the carol service”.


ASK clergy families about how they juggle celebrating Christmas in the ecclesiastical sense with celebrating it more domestically, and some common themes emerge. Few clerical families have Christmas lunch. Variations on soup and smoked salmon seem to offer an almost universal menu, followed by Christmas dinner in the evening.

The challenge is not just the busyness but the ensuing exhaustion, and an evening meal allows time, not only for some hospital visiting and a walk, but also, most importantly, for the afternoon nap: “I send X to bed for an hour when he gets home from the main Christmas-morning service — he’s unspeakable otherwise.”

Where clergy spouses are, for example, doctors or nurses, working the early shift fits in with an evening celebration. In one sense, Christmas Day is not so different from a normal Sunday, when the clerical parent is absent; this is both an advantage (everyone’s used to Mum or Dad, in Susan Howatch’s memorable phrase, “out being wonderful somewhere else”), and a drawback (so what’s special about Christmas?).

A daughter, writing about her episcopal father’s having to take Christmas services every year, points out that “we are allowed to go with him and watch him preaching and doing his job, unlike [say] nurses’ children, who would not be able to go to work with their parents.”

Certainly, much of the secret of a successful celebration seems to lie in the feeling that you’re all in it together: if the preparation and the involvement are part of the fun, however tiring, that transforms the experience.


THE tradition of inviting others to share in Christmas dinner (not infrequently an impromptu clerical invitation, which may come as a surprise to the cook) offers unexpected advantages to the would-be benefactor. “We always try and invite someone else to join us for the whole day at least — that way you have entertainment for the children, help with the lunch and washing-up, and your spouse won’t dare to be so grumpy. It doesn’t seem to matter who it is: it’s worked every time, and everyone really enters into the spirit of it.”

Alternatively, it may be wise to invite “other churchpeople who know the score. If they, too, are exhausted, that makes them perfect Christmas guests.”

Having a guest, however, may require sensitivity over present-opening: “We had to delay it because we had lots, and she had only brought one present to open for herself.” Some families have “a family tradition that Father Christmas had forgotten to deliver one of the presents for each of us; so he would drop in once more on Boxing Day. That way, we had one to open when we were all less exhausted.”


OF COURSE, even in church, clergy are far from the only people who are working: the lot falls also on churchwardens, parish administrators, vergers, bell-ringers, and, not least, church musicians, for whom the choral frenzy builds steadily from November. Where even one child is a chorister, it requires a commitment from the rest of the family, including possibly non-musical siblings.

Built-in rituals around, for instance, choir rehearsals which involve the whole family become part of the celebration. The first female lay clerk in a northern cathedral writes: “Treats for me are the Precentor bringing up a tray of port to warm the lay clerks’ cockles before we sing on Christmas morning; and the chorister parents gathering for coffee and mince pies while we sing in rehearsal before the Christmas Day service.”

Musicians are subject to the same pressures as clergy to keep well and avoid seasonal lurgies until it’s all over: the musical mother of five chorister children recalls the Christmas when they were all ailing, and she “lined them up on the sofa and spoon-fed them Calpol — one spoon for all five: just went along them like baby birds — just to get their sore little throats through the day”.

The same contributor, enumerating the endless carol services with which they are involved, concludes: “It’s a good job I love ‘Hark! the herald’”. (Bafflingly, as evidenced by our small poll in this paper, so do many others.)


MARTIN CASTLEDINE is Dean’s Verger at Westminster Abbey, where all those working on the abbey floor on Christmas Day — honorary stewards, marshals, vergers — are invited to Christmas lunch in the choir school. Lunch is strictly timed to enable the abbey to reopen for evensong (which may draw 1000 worshippers) at 3 p.m. The building then closes for the rest of the day, but reopens for visitors on Boxing Day morning.

Martin heads a team of nine, of whom five will be on duty in the abbey, and two in St Margaret’s, next door, allowing an element of flexibility in the rota. As he points out, cathedrals outside the metropolis may be lucky to have three or four vergers, all of whom will have to be on duty every Christmas. Parish churches are fortunate if they have a verger at all; hard-pressed churchwardens will often fill the gap.

The sheer numbers at the Abbey — of clergy helping out, as well as of communicants — mean that it can take two days to prepare all the necessary copes, linen, and communion vessels. Martin likens it to “a very large dinner party” that needs meticulous planning and preparation beforehand. “Then, on the night, you hope everyone enjoys themselves; but you still have to do all the clearing up afterwards . . . ”

He tries to take a day off in the week before Christmas to deal with Christmas shopping and cards; like many who work over the festival, he looks forward afterwards to retreating somewhere private for some peace and solitude.


THIS, however, can be difficult for wider family and friends: on Christmas afternoon, roads — otherwise emptier than usual — are filled with clergy and their families, criss-crossing the country to celebrate with the extended family, only to arrive exhausted as everyone else is raring to go. Post-Christmas Day celebrations depend on the understanding not only of parents (on both sides), but also of adult brothers and sisters, perhaps with families of their own.

“We stay at home until at least a day or two after Boxing Day,” a wife who has learned from experience says. “We can then muster the energy needed to celebrate with family.”

An alternative is to have grandparents and others to stay beforehand, in order to ring-fence some time off for the immediate family straight after Christmas. The success of this strategy seems to depend entirely on whether the visitors score massive Brownie points as hands-on babysitters and bottle-washers, or whether they expect to be entertained in a week when everyone is already stretched to capacity.

And not everyone’s idea of celebrating involves worship: Sarah (not her real name) comments sadly that her mother prefers to be with Sarah’s sister for Christmas, because “it’s all too much church for her, apparently, and not enough TV.”


THE tradition of collapsing in a heap on Boxing Day appears to be clerically and musically universal, although one of the biggest common hazards is the propensity to illness, when time off eventually materialises, in reaction to the pressures of the previous weeks.

Overwhelmingly, however, the families I talked to underlined how much they love the celebrations, despite the exhaustion; and, in adult life, many clergy children are perpetuating the tradition of seasonal busyness as churchwardens and musicians.

There is widespread family resistance to doing anything different, or ditching popular traditions, “just because we’re clergy”. Many suggest that the key is careful planning; but one wise wife remembers recognising “that we were trying to squeeze ‘tradition’ into a pattern that didn’t work for our situation. If you do things as a family and make them ‘our family tradition’, they become ‘what we do’, and are even more special and unique. Children like ‘doing things again’, and we would often hear ‘Can we do xyz like we did before?’ They didn’t feel they missed out; it was just that some things were in a different order.”


Stephen Cleobury's Christmas starts early

This year will bring my 34th Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s. Although I have relaxed over time into the post, this broadcast is always a challenging assignment. This Christmas Eve will be the first in which neither of my predecessors, David Willcocks and Philip Ledger, the only others who knew what it is like to carry responsibility for this event, has been alive. I shall miss their unfailingly supportive presence, and their reassuring words of approval following the service.

My Christmas begins back in the summer, when I start to plan the music for Michaelmas term, taking into account the music to be prepared for the Advent and Christmas services and concerts. The choir that arrives back in October is a new one, in that a proportion of choral scholars will have graduated, and a number of the choristers will have left for their senior schools; so the autumn involves honing the choir anew before the onset of the big services.

I am always preoccupied during this term, and conscious that I am often out of touch with my youngest children, aged 12 and six. Olivia, the elder, is herself caught up in many musical Christmas commitments, and sometimes it feels as if we pass like ships in the night.

My wife, Emma, bears the brunt of all the practical preparations, although I do try to join the rest of the family when the Christmas tree is decorated. This year we have 12 people coming to us for Christmas Day — it’s not practical ourselves to go anywhere; so family and friends kindly come to us.

ON CHRISTMAS Eve, Emma and I host a soup-and-sandwich lunch at King’s for friends and colleagues prior to the service. This is my way of avoiding fretting in a corner! Surrounded by friends on what has always been a happy occasion, I think about which chorister to choose to sing the opening verse of “Once in Royal”.

We look forward our post-Christmas break. This year, we shall visit friends and family, including my daughters Suzannah and Laura, in Yorkshire and Wiltshire. On New Year’s Eve (my birthday), we shall be with friends in Scotland; and then, on 2 January, I’m off to Madrid for the first freelance engagements of 2016.

Stephen Cleobury is Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge.

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is broadcast live on Radio 4 on 24 December at 3 p.m., and is repeated on Radio 3 on Christmas Day at 2 p.m.

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