I have a wonderful friend, who has it, in terms of spiritual completeness. People come for miles to attend his beautiful services at Brighton Unitarian Church – he is inspirational. For Christmas his mother knitted him a nativity. I think it may be missing an angel, but this apart, I believe it’s almost perfect. He lives in a small flat close to the sea full of intriguing objects that reflect his passion for life in all its dimensions, artistic, cultural and natural – wonderful books, fossils, fascinating ceramics; it is, without a doubt a sacred space that belongs to a sacred person. I asked him about Christmas decorations, and I’m not confident that there is a lot of space for such frippery, but the knitted nativity is clearly important at this time of year.
I believe my space is sacred too. I share it with my little family, and at this time of year what we lack in a knitted nativity, we gain with our two Christmas trees; one decorated with birds and red baubles and lamentable Lametta of yesteryear, and the other smothered in all manner of jolly things, from balls and bells to robots and flying fairies. They celebrate our love for our home. Sacred space is about love. The space reflects the people who occupy it, and if one is lucky, or better still, blessed, it’s also home to happy energies and entities. Some of these things are almost tangible while other entities are invisible, but one is aware of them. The ancient Romans would call these positive energies ‘household gods’ and give them names, and have shrines around the house with flowers and food and decorations to say “hallo” and express their appreciation of pleasant things of a housie nature. Today one can find such shrines in the homes of Hindu people, and devout Catholics, presided over by Ganesh or Mary. We also have a strange structure in our kitchen that could pass for a shrine. Over Christmas it’s covered in sparkly things, little people and animals; it’s an object of love, but I don’t know which household God it serves…
…Maybe the interestingly named Frigg of Norse Legend who gave her name to a day of the week – Frigday – or Friday if you want to be pedantic. We all have the potential to create sacred space, and if we’re lucky, our energy and concern about what goes on around us is reflected in that place. Very sadly, it seems to me that many churches whose pastors imagine them to be sacred are anything but. They are cold, sad, dusty and neglected. They have lost the love they gave and received. The entities have moved out. There’s no knowing why the household gods or fairies choose to move out, but they do sometimes; I think they depart when love and chi are not flowing. I suspect they also like to be amused and entertained… like cats.
Many years ago when I ran my business my staff constantly laughed at my deference to the office’s household Gods. Year in year out we worked in a dear little building in a street that was a real invitation to the criminal element of Kentish Town, and for some strange reason our office was consistently overlooked. Then one day something happened. In under a week we were burgled twice. So much stuff was taken – even the lock on the door was hacked away and removed. A member of staff observed “Oh dear, the household Gods have moved out,” and they had indeed. Knowing you have something is also about knowing when you don’t.
So if you want to celebrate Christmas in a sacred space that’s home to the fairies – here’s how: take a sip of something delicious, decorate your tree with love, listen to your favourite carol, and send out a message of love to this wonderful world. You can also give your sacred space a lovely gift, and knit a nativity… if you’re gifted with that very special skill.
For 11 months of the year my iPod warbles merrily away, churning out music of every possible flavour and kind — jazz, classical, pop, rock and ambient sounds. There are very few genres of music that I am not prepared to introduce to my earoles. But once shuffle is switched on there’s a danger that unexpected things will occasionally pop up – Italian lessons, totally weird ambient music from outer space, some horrendous Indonesian pop song downloaded for a quiz, all these can unexpectedly play, but happily it doesn’t occur too often. Much more commonly the shuffle will have an inexplicable enthusiasm for playing Dusty Springfield, Alfred Deller, harpsichord music, or a particular composer. Last week it went for Vaughan Williams, for no reason. It’s as if the shuffle was haunted by a lovely person with a particular penchant for certain music. But there is one kind of music I will not under any circumstances tolerate for 11 months of the year… and that is Christmas music. Woe betide the sound system if ‘Jingle Bells’ blares out in July. If that happens the iPod may suffer a horrible fate, like being threatened with a bucket of water, permanent silence… and rude words. So the iPod is very well behaved, and plays very little Christmas music for 11 months of the year, except at Christmas time, which is OK by me. Then on December 1 something very strange happens. I just long to hear Christmas music in all its wonderful forms – classical, pop and even folk, which is not a great favourite of mine at the best of times. Then, like the magic of the season itself, the Christmas playlists are set free to fly, and they are truly lovely.
Right now I am having a bad attack of ‘Gaudete’ and there are some delicious versions lurking within – Howard Goodall’s gorgeous rendition, Libera & Robert Prizeman’s which is both twinkly and mystical, and then there is John Rutter’s with the Farnham Youth Choir which is intensely fruity at times. And who, Oh who will ever forget the silly ‘corks up the nose’ Steeleye Span version of ‘Gaudete’, eh? I have only three varieties of my favourite ‘Carol of the Bells’ – The Carpenters, a middle of the road instrumental thing, an amazing Christmas Sound Effects version lasting just 30 seconds (tinkles and twinkles like a chance meeting with Tinkerbell) and a truly charming track from Libera, that is sweeter than a sweety.
Every year I make a massive compilation of Christmas music, combining old ones, new ones, crummy ones and silly ones. It’s tricky putting exquisite choral music alongside pop Christmas songs, in fact it’s downright impossible. Wham just doesn’t sound any good alongside Kings College Choir. So the pop music and the jazz are kept apart from the classical, but apart from that, there are no rules. And so, all one has to do… is drift into the snowy fairyland of Christmas music where sickeningly sugary American sentiment sounds absolutely fine. Now is the moment (and only now) I will listen to Natalie Cole and Michael Bublé trilling ‘My Grown Up Christmas List’. Only this month will I tolerate the horror of Wizzard screaming ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday’, or swoon to the fabulous gutsy racket of Brian Rayner Cook blaring out ‘Sleigh Ride’ at 10 zillion decibels.I can’t recommend any albums this year because I haven’t looked at this year’s offerings, apart from the hideously over-hyped album ‘Christmas at Downton Abbey’… and tell me, please, what is that about? 45 tracks I have decided to live without, particularly the second one – a depressing rendition of ‘O Holy Night’. If one is going to have a compilation at least choose a great version of ‘O Holy Night’, like The Bach Choir and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, something much loved in this household. Meanwhile, back at Downton Abbey, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Julian Ovenden (who both apparently appeared in the saga) sing loads of stuff on this ancient Christmas cracker of crumbs. They do lots of allegedly jolly stuff that sounds as though they were having fun on their own, chirruping something quite different from the person next to them. It’s a real hysterical free-for all on ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’. So where is Dame Maggie Smith? She could surely chime in with a cackle or two, bash a triangle or shake a tambourine to bring another historical dimension to the proceedings.
But if you like lovely wistful jazz Eddie Higgins ‘Christmas Songs’ is lovely, and David Rees-Williams ‘Ex-Mass’ has some stunning tracks. And the very best and most charming laugh in terms of seasonal albums has to be Clare Teal’s ‘Jing, Jing-A-Ling’ a real trip into the 50s, and beyond. And if you want to venture into the dark side of Christmas, you can always try something totally beyond the pale, like Flatulina’s ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’, but please don’t tell anyone I mentioned this. Now who says that I don’t think about you at Christmas? GO! Wrap your earoles round a few of those tracks and have some sparkly fun. Yippee! Skippy!
Yesterday at 3pm at the Brighton Methodist Church in Dorset Gardens something mysterious and beautiful happened. Over 100 people gathered together to celebrate the diversity of faith in our City at the IFCG* annual interfaith service. It was a unique moment of beauty, explained by Mrs Sara Stonor, the Vice Lord Lieutenant representing the Queen, in her closing prayer – “…Woven into an exquisite harmony, a most blessed harmony, for we, in our diversity are as one”.
All sorts of people were there, contributing so much – the Mayor of Brighton and his delightful wife, the MP for Kemptown – Simon Kirby, the Vicar of the Methodist Church Rev Robin Selmes, and many very special people, but the real stars, it seemed to me, were those that brought their charisma with them, like cloaks of many colours. It was as if they shone, and naturally radiated the mystical language of spirit that none of us fully understand, and yet we can all connect with. These amazing people were Caroline Lucas, Razia Aziz, Judith Silver, the Druid Damh, the Islamic reader Mohammed, Rev Debbie Gaston and Ruth Scott. There was also the passionate Buddhist Sahajatara, the Bahai Fariba, Tina Oberman and Rev Andy Lowe who also sang in the choir, but for me it was the mystical seven that stand out in my mind – radiant spirits, with their powerful faith and their voices.
Of course by singling out the praises of certain people I realise that I am being completely disrespectful to so many that were there – my unique family, who made the tea and ushered everyone around, and the incredible choir, which really taught me a very good lesson, and of course the congregation. In previous years I have always invited the Brighton and Hove voices (around 40 good singers that have a massive repertoire) to sing at the interfaith service. But my fellow executive of the Brighton and Hove Interfaith Contact Group, the wise Charlotte Gravestock, wanted the Rev Razia Aziz to set up a real ‘interfaith” choir, with just a couple of rehearsals before the service, to ‘do’ the music. For a few weeks I felt as though I had lost my baby blanket and rattle as well. Could Razia produce something as good as a blooming great chorus that meets every month, and performs the length and breadth of Sussex on a regular basis? The answer was yes – and she could do better, with half the number. Between her and the wonderful Judith Silver they not only did it, they did it to perfection. And the sight of the choir alone moved one to tears – 21 people of all cultures, colours, faiths and backgrounds standing side by side, singing in harmony at Brighton and Hove’s annual interfaith service – it was truly breath-taking.
Some moments will remain with me forever – the choir singing with Razia and Judith, and Caroline Lucas reading Rabindranath Tagore’s masterpieces – Where the Mind is Without Fear… and On the Seashore – which produced a gasp of delight as she ended with the words “On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children.”