Following the Star

Paddy McCann | Flickr |

Postcard from London

By John Martin

Some English migrants to my native Australia celebrate a traditional Christmas-style dinner in July, the coolest month of the year. Out comes roast turkey and all the festive trimmings, followed by plum pudding. July is the closest they come to the winter weather of the Old Country.

Christmas in Australia is loaded with anomalies. As a boy I puzzled over carols like “See Amid the Winter’s Snow.” The same liturgical calendar operates in the south as the north, so early Christian missionaries to northern Europe could draw seasonal analogies between lengthening days and the coming of the light of Christ. Not so Down Under. Christmas did not fit any kind of seasonal rhythm.

When I came to England over three decades ago, I gradually began to see how the northern Christmas snuggly fit the culture, creating opportunities for churches to catch the seasonal mood.

While attendance at Sunday worship continues to edge lower, in line with long-term trends, in 2017 national attendance at Christmas services increased by 3.4 percent to 2.68 million. This is the fourth successive annual rise in Christmas congregations.

Christmas tastes are ever-changing. Up until 1963 it never seemed to occur to recording artists to produce special Christmas songs. At Christmas there were schmaltzy carols and easy-listening staples. Now Christmas songs are in hot competition, although they rarely mention the Christ child.

Tesco, the country’s largest supermarket chain, reports that less than half of English families eat a traditional Christmas pudding. Research conducted by British Corner Shop, an online supermarket, found that a third of Brits will not hang a Christmas wreath on their door come December 25. One tradition that stands firm is how large numbers of Brits watch the Queen’s Christmas Speech on television.

About 25 percent will not sit down to a Christmas dinner complete with traditional veggie sides including roasted potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and parsnips covered in a generous helping of gravy. And just 20 percent will have a real Christmas tree in their home this year.

Despite Brits increasingly hanging loose to Christmas traditions, everywhere carol services are jam-packed. For several years the Evening Standard has run a lengthy feature on “The Best 10 Carol Services” in London.

ComRes research says 92 percent of British adults are aware of Advent, and 39 percent expect to do something to celebrate it. Of the options tested, the survey showed that Advent calendars are the most popular way of marking the season, with 30 percent of adults (37% of women and 22% of men) expecting to use one. Twelve percent of respondents expect to attend a church or Carol service during Advent, 7 percent expect to pray, 2 percent expect to read an Advent book, and 3 percent expect to mark Advent in some other way.

Our parish goes to a lot of trouble to stage memorable events. For our carol service, we hire a brass ensemble. We distribute personal invitation cards (conversations with my Hindu dentist about religion prompted me to add him to my list).

What is amazing is that people we see just once a year dig deep into their wallets and give generously. Carol Services are not our only bill of fare. A Christingle that originated in South America is another well-attended event. We offer Christmas Dinner in the church hall. In attendance last year was a local Member of Parliament who is a Muslim. Later in the day there will be a Crib Service for small children and their parents.

For the first time in my memory, the national church has launched a campaign drawing attention to the season. It is encouraging parishes to sign up for #FollowTheStar.

The project comes with the endorsement of Archbishops Justin Welby and John Sentamu. They write, “For many of us, Christmas brings up so many emotions, memories and expectations. We have one nativity story, but it can seem like we all have very different Christmases.”

They observe that plenty of people “can find it a sad and lonely time — nagged by the feeling that your Christmas is not like those ‘perfect’ ones we see in the media. But just like the unexpected assortment of people who were invited to meet the baby Jesus, #FollowTheStar doesn’t ask you to be perfect.

“It says: come just as you are to take the life-changing Christmas journey. Wherever you are this Christmas, you are invited to follow the star and to be with Jesus. You are welcome. You are deeply known and truly loved.” #FollowTheStar represents a game-changer by the C of E.

Up until recently there were no serious resources invested in the Christmas season. One bright spot, however, was a low-cost advertising campaign cobbled together by some diocesan communications officers, enticing more worshipers to church during the festive period.

These ads depended on media outlets picking them up as news stories, thus multiplying their influence. One memorable ad zoomed around a church congregation to a jazz-funk version of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Captions reveal failings in all of the worshipers — such as drink, jail, and abortion — and the commercial ends with this line: “You don’t have to be perfect to go to church this Christmas.”


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