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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

09 December 2022

Malcolm Guite is unexpectedly moved by the switching on of his town’s Christmas lights

I HAVE not always been a fan of the ritual switching on of Christmas lights, which inevitably happens in late November, before Advent has even started. My inner liturgist was always muttering about all this premature glitz and bling, when what I felt we all needed was a slow, subfusc, understated Advent, so that we might, at least for a while, be “the people who walked in darkness”, given long enough to learn the wisdom of waiting, before, on the great day, and by glorious contrast, we would “see his marvellous light”.

I wished in vain, of course, and I find, in any case, that I have mellowed with age. To be honest, I’m glad of any collective ritual that gathers a town or village together, affirms our life as a community, and at least gives people a chance, after the fizzy pop from various karaoke performers, to hear their own Salvation Army band play the great carols, and to get in that rare thing: a little community singing.

I had intended to go to North Walsham’s big switch-on last year, but in fact it was blown away by a severe gale, which tore into the tents and booths of the hot-dog- and coffee-sellers, the charity tombola stalls, and the children’s lucky dips, even before anyone had turned up. The town’s health and safety officer sensed too much danger, and the whole thing was cancelled. The lights themselves came on a little later, after various repairs, but there was no one there to see them.

So, this year, I was determined to be there and make the most of it, and, in fact, I found it unexpectedly moving. Amid all the commercial bustle, the church was open, warm, and welcoming, as it should be, with plenty of activities for children, and refreshments for young and old; dogs were welcome, and, indeed, I had my work cut out to keep George, our amiable greyhound, away from the mince pies and iced biscuits all temptingly displayed at nose level.

Fortified and warmed by a couple of pints from the Hop Inn, I enjoyed the gradual build-up, the growing crowd, the mothers dancing with their children on their shoulders as someone belted out “Rockin’ around the Christmas tree” from the market cross. And, while I was soaking up the atmosphere, George was hoovering up all the chips and biscuits so kindly dropped by the children.

The lights themselves, so the programme said, were to be switched on by our local MP, which is a right and proper thing for an MP of any party to do. But, just before we began our collective countdown from ten, the MP introduced his surprise guest of honour: a little boy from Ukraine, a refugee who was staying, along with his family, at the MP’s house as part of the welcome and resettlement scheme.

At the end of the countdown, the boy stepped up and pressed the big red button with great glee and aplomb, and all around us the ancient market square flowered into light: trailers and streamers of little lights, looping between the shops, or hanging down from the eaves, and here and there a Bethlehem star setting out like a comet with a multi-coloured tail.

The boy who had made it all happen was enchanted, but more than one of us there were reflecting on the emblem of Advent hope which we had just witnessed, as a young refugee kindled light for us, even as his country was plunged into darkness.

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