Down in the forest
THE lights have just dimmed on our festival of Christmas trees, and, to my surprise, I’m feeling quite emotional. The word “magical” is somewhat over-used in this post-Harry Potter world, but that is just what these past three days have been: magical. We have had a whole forest of pines in the church, jammed in the pews in the nave and filling the galleries above with twinkling lights and tinsel. Wandering through them was like a journey through Narnia.
This was the tenth one we’ve done, and the biggest: we had 98 trees in the brochure, with a big one outside, which brought us to 99. I was determined to get us up to 100; so I bought a miniature one from Tesco and put it next to the crib scene to represent the church mice (News, 15 December).
The trees are hugely prized in the local community, and are allocated on a first-come first-served basis, which means that they are all taken within a day of being advertised in early September. Individuals, businesses, schools, and charities vie with each other in theme and ingenuity, and the result is spectacular. The splendidly named “Uckfield Divas” WI group had turned their tree into a feathery crinoline, complete with a with a bodice, and topped off with a cocked hat; a local hardware shop had gone surreal with articulated dolls escaping from the tree and swinging on the church’s brass chandelier above; the Uckfield Preservation Society had gone all retro with garlands of dried fruits and clove-pierced oranges; and a motorbike-repair shop had used jaunty Santa-hatted spark plugs, which I found rather endearing.
But my favourite had to be that designed by the staff of a village farm-shop, who had festooned their tree with artificial beefsteaks and rashers of streaky bacon. I’m easily won over by the promise of a bacon sandwich.
Baubles and Bonios
I AM expected to have a go, too. The “Rector’s tree” this year celebrated our children’s work, and I hung it with logos for “Messy Harvest” and “Messy Easter”, alongside badges for our holiday club, “Pyramid Rock”, all on top of red tinsel and baubles.
Last year, I chose a theme for my dog, Sophie, which involved wooden labradors, doggie treats, and gold spray-painted Bonios. But these offerings pale before the trees that our curate had decorated in previous years, which included “More tea, Vicar?”, where the decorations were tea bags and china teacups, and then “Vicars and tarts”, which had clerical collars and little iced Bakewell tartlets hanging from the branches, which, I remember, intrigued Sophie no end.
THE attendance for the tree festival was excellent, too: upwards of 6500 people came over the three days, culminating in a festival service, where we were packed to the rafters. At one point during proceedings, we had queues down the churchyard path to the gate, and we had to go up and down the line offering medicinal mulled wine while people waited in the cold.
Finally, as the people entered the building, the pine scent hit them, and I watched many — both adults and children — stand there, look round, and utter a long-drawn-out “Wow!” I greeted many of them, with Sophie in attendance to encourage the dog-friendly; but, after the 1000 or so times she had said, in dog, “Hello, I’m Sophie, I love you: join my pack and give me a biscuit,” even she got a bit punch-drunk and needed a lie down in the car for a rest.
The most popular question, though, (beyond “Where are the lavatories?”) was “Why isn’t the baby in the crib?” The answer was, of course, that we were in Advent, and the baby would appear, as if by magic, on Christmas Eve.
Ready and waiting
MIND you, I gathered that, a few years ago, the crib was a focus of dissension. A “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” message had popped up on Facebook, objecting (on the grounds of theological appropriateness) to having the nativity scene up in early Advent. My then predecessor, the greatly lamented Canon Martin Onions, had gently responded that the whole point of the festival was to draw people to the stable, and to that empty manger, to encourage them to prepare their own hearts to receive the Christ-child anew. All in all, the whole thing was joyous.
As the lights go down, and the trees head for dismantling, we begin planning for 2018. . .
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.