23 December, 2009

I rang Carol, one of the church wardens recently about a friend who needed a hamper of food at Xmas. My friend had broken her back (she can walk), and a number of other things had happened. She gained an abused stepchild the day she came out of hospital, in addition to her own two young children. A long year of recovery ahead of her, a husband who’s miraculously survived three heart attacks but is unable to work. Tough times indeed. I first heard about free hampers when my Health Visitor referred me for one. They are a lovely thing to get when you’re facing a skint Christmas. An amazing box of grocery blessings, dropped on your doorstep from heaven. Ok, so mine is actually dropped off by the Rotary Club, but you know what I mean.

So I was on the phone to Carol about the family-in-need and I explained the situation and asked her if there was any help the church might offer them. I was expecting her to say, “how terrible”, or , “of course we’ll do something” or “Jesus Christ! That’s awful”. What she actually said, in a voice like aspartame was, “I was surprised you weren’t in church yesterday”. Really? Why? (I didn’t say that, but I felt like it). I go to church regularly – one visit every year. I go to the children’s “Christingle” Christmas service. It might be said, that some years I’ve been a bit late, but I can assure you that I always get there before the free sweets and oranges are given out at the end. However, I didn’t realise there was a register being taken. I wonder if “He” reads it?

The Christingle service is pure magic – think Derren Brown – not quite what you expect, but strangely fascinating.   The Sunday School put on a play and it’s a strange sort of parody of Christian life. The woman who writes the play has absolutely no idea how subversive her messages are. She is totally innocent. But the rest of us watch with baited breath, wondering what the latest heresy will be. Carol, the church warden, has been trying to have the plays banned for years. Last year they did a remake of The good Samaritan and the play was actually set on Christingle day, in the village. Like in real time. The story was that a passing backpacker was mugged by some hoodies. They took her phone and left her at the side of the road, battered and bruised.

I think I should just put in a little aside here. It’s worth mentioning that if this really happened here, half the village would be out (watching) and they’d point out the hoodies’ houses immediately. Then they’d walk her to the door and tell the hoodie parents what had been going on. The hoodies would have their i-phones confiscated for a week, and the victim would get a glass of sherry in the living room. This would enable the hoodie mum to ring round the other hoodie mums (“I just can’t understand it”) and find the rest of the stolen gear. Shortly after, a couple of fop-haird boys, in ironed striped shirts and M&S pullovers, would appear from the back of a waiting Audi estate. They’d return the stuff and go bright red apologizing, muttering towards the ground, “so sorry”, “stupid mistake” and “never happen again”. Yes, it’s zero tolerance for gangs round here.

Back to the play. So our backpacker victim lies in front of us, having been mugged. The acting “vicar” runs by her, he’s in a hurry to prepare for his Christingle service. Then all the children walk by, dressed as Mary and Joseph, sheep etc. They don’t stop because they want to get to the church in time for the play. Then all the parishoners walk by eager to get to church on time. The first Act ends with the “vicar” smugly announcing the first hymn, Silent Night. Then the real Vicar gets up and tries to distance himself from how he is being portrayed in the play. There is even an uncomfortable resemblance between the two. He announces the “real” hymn, no 176, and it turns out to be, Silent Night. The real vicar laughs uncomfortably. My eyes meet Carol’s, across the pews. I am amused, she clearly is not.

In the second act, our Samaritan play spirals into the unknown. Our traveller is eventually helped out by, wait for it, a Muslim. It’s a very brave attempt at political correctness.  I say “attempt” as our Muslim is actually played by a white boy with a painted brown face. Not really very PC anywhere else, but here in whitest West Witney, it’s a statement of inclusion.  I am actually half Egyptian and half Irish.  In London I’d be considered pale, but out here I’m definitely a racial minority. I wonder if anyone thinks he’s with me?

Our Muslim is a kindly open-minded man, who is coming to visit the Church at Christmas in a spirit of friendly interfaith. On his way, he stumbles across the victim and takes time to helps her. After caring for our hapless traveller, our Muslim hero encourages her to join him and they visit the church together. (Now, he’s expanding the flock?). Once in the church, our traveller-victim sees all the hypocritical bigots who ignored her in distress. One by one, led by the “vicar”, they apologies for their lack of Christian spirit. Even the hoodies are in church and give the phone back, muttering “so sorry”, “terrible mistake”, “won’t happen again”.

Brilliant isn’t it? Makes all those cutting statements about modern Christian life. But actually, none of it is intentional. The woman who wrote the play is in the front pew, smiling proudly.  Her fourteen year old son has his arm round her and kisses her (a lot). Carol, however, is about to blow her top. Maybe she’ll be able to disguise it as the holy spirit coming out of her head instead of steam. The real Vicar stands up and is clearly unsure of the message we’ve just “shared”. He moves quickly on to the nice bubbly thank yous – much safer ground. One by one he calls all the children to the front and thanks them. He gives the children heaps of hearty praise and asks us for a big round of applause. Just then he notices me gesticulating. He stops the applause in mid flow and says

“Someone’s been left out. Who is it? Who is it?”  He looks at me.
“Er, it’s the victim”, I reply and point to the girl who was mugged.  She makes her way to the front. The poor vicar goes red with embarrassment, he’s done it for real. I bow my head in contemplation, but shaking shoulders are a dead give away.

Back on the phone, Carol has asked me for a second time why I wasn’t at the Christingle service. She knows I’m not what she’d call a “Christian”. And that’s why I’m surprised she’s pushing me about my non-appearance in church this year. I’m an idol worshipping Hindu, who’s belief in karma and reincarnation mean I’m gonna be hot, hot, hot, in the afterlife. If I’d realised that one more tick on her Christingle register would have reversed that, then for sure I would have turned up – just in case she’s right, and god is a judgemental, unforgiving parent, who dishes out eternal tough-love for no good reason.  I steer the conversation back towards the hamper for my friend-in-need. She offers to see if there is some help. Then it dawns on me, she is trying to tell me that I should have been in church if I want to ring up looking for help for people. Just as I realise this, someone bangs hard on the front door and I hurriedly put the phone down. I open the door and can’t quite believe my eyes. It’s a man with two heavy boxes and a present wrapped in Xmas paper. It’s an amazing box of grocery blessings, dropped on my doorstep from heaven.  Thank god for the Witney Rotary Club’s hampers.

P.S.  Carol rang a few days later to say she had organised a Sainsburys voucher for the family.

One Response to “Christingle”

  1. Thanks for putting together Christingle Thank you for the days I am enjoying your posts. Would you consider a guest post? You can see my post style at and certainly I would be interested in having you post an article or two on my blog, what do you think?

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