Wednesday, 30 December 2009

So which Christmas traditions have survived?

If there is one word that is usually employed to justify practically anything over Christmas it is that phrase ‘tradition’. Don’t like sprouts? Tough, it’s a tradition. Don’t want to visit that weird uncle you have avoided all year? Forget it – it’s a tradition.

And so it goes on.

But just how are some of our Christmas traditions baring up? Looking at the festive time that has just passed, are those precious practices really as safe as we think? Investigative journalism beginneth!

Santa. Remarkably (and thankfully for any children reading!) Father Christmas seems as popular and as busy as ever. He obviously had a lot to do on Christmas Eve but he was everywhere around Bath before then. Santa is seemingly immortal.
(Tradition Survival Rating *****)

Christmas Cards. Definitely a dying art. I can guarantee that you didn’t receive as many this year as last and that you will receive even less next year. Nowadays you are just as likely to get a dancing elf on your computer as a card in the post.
(Tradition Survival Rating **)

Christmas dinner. Chat to any group of people and you will find the same repeated story – everybody dislikes at least one item on their Christmas dinner plate. Does it stop them getting it? Of course not. The Christmas meal looks as secure as the, err, Bank of England. Sorry turkeys – this one is here to stay.

(Tradition Survival Rating *****)

Christmas carols/Nativity plays. These looked a bit under threat a few years ago as fewer schools seemed to be holding them. Now, they seem to be making something of a come back and it looks as though we will be harking the Herald and admiring children who play ‘fourth camel from the left’ for years to come.

(Tradition Survival Rating ****).

Christmas presents. The Three Wise Men bought frankincense, myrrh and gold to the baby Jesus – nowadays, sadly, they would be more likely to take a few Shekels and a token for Bethlehem’s Toys R Us. The practice of just giving someone a lump of money and having the same amount given back to you is frankly pointless. Bring back real, wrapped-up, presents we cry!
(Tradition Survival Rating ****)

Christmas TV. This is still a tradition that is ‘hanging in there’ and once again this year BBC1 came up trumps. Eastenders remains one of my guilty pleasures and what could be nicer or more festive than seeing someone murdered in the Queen Vic on Christmas night?
(Tradition Survival Rating ****)

And finally....

Jesus. He is the ‘reason for the season’ but you’d be hard pressed to find evidence of that fact. Just take a look at the (few) Christmas cards that you got sent this year and I can guarantee that unless you are a vicar there will more images of Father Christmas, a reindeer or even a snowflake than the little fella from the stable. Jesus, of course, would (I am sure) just be happy that everyone is celebrating His birthday but just as if He were a twin there must be times when He thinks ‘just for one day I wish I was the only star of the show . . .’
(Tradition Survival Rating **** – but I am sure He will just about cope!).

Thursday, 17 December 2009

A day to mourn and celebrate a special lady

13 years ago, a 25-year-old woman, Melanie Hall, went mising after a night out in Bath's city centre. A few weeks ago her body was finally found and everyone's worst fears were confirmed - she had been murdered. I went to the funeral in Bath Abbey last week and here is my comment on what was a very moving event. It appears in the Chronicle of Thursday, December 17.

"Melanie Hall was, by all accounts, a beautiful woman on both the inside and the outside. And, therefore, it seemed apt that her funeral last Friday was a truly beautiful affair.

I was there, along with around 1,000 folk from all over the community, both to mourn and to celebrate the life of a 25-year-old woman who has become an unwitting part of modern day Bath history.

This was a time for tears, yes, but it was also a time to cheer a life well lived and salute a remarkable young person who touched everyone she met.

Friday’s unforgettable service gave us all an hitherto unseen glimpse into Melanie’s character, provided with courage and tenderness by family and friends alike. What emerged was a picture of a caring, modest woman who would probably have been somewhat bemused (and probably a trifle embarrassed) by the waves of love that were expressed towards her in this most public of places. After all Melanie had seemingly spent her whole life expressing and living her love for others – on Friday it was chance for the world to see she was truly loved back.

What made the day so special was that every element worked together perfectly. The music was rich and evocative, the carols and hymns (led by Ruth McKibbins’ quite wonderful Silver Ring choir) were well chosen and expertly sung and the quality and delivery of the readings and tributes was simply peerless.

The powerful, thought-provoking address of Melanie’s father, Steve, fired all our imaginations but no less effective and inspiring were the intimate insights into a young life offered by Melanie’s sister Dominique and friends and colleagues like Sister Gill Capon, Sophie Bruce and Sarah Hopkins. All spoke from the heart – and all duly touched everyone else’s.
Some of us there, including myself, had never had the privilege of knowing Melanie but I am sure we all felt we ‘met’ her on Friday.

In addition we were able to reflect on the well-crafted readings and thoughts expressed by the Revd Prebendary Edward Mason, the Rev Chris Roberts and the Rev Alison Fry who, I thought, all got their tone and message exactly right. Put it all together and the whole service was like a beautiful mountain range – all peaks and no valleys.

The impact was to leave all of us in the packed abbey feeling humbled, inspired and totally united. I found so many moments on Friday to be intensely moving but I was particularly struck by the words of a poem by David Harkins called She’s Gone, read so elegantly by the brave Dominique Hall.

It included the following lines which sums up how so many of must feel when we have lost loved ones. These words – about looking forward not back and offering thanksgiving for a life not just sadness for its loss – seemed as if they were written for this occasion and for this special young lady even though they were penned nearly 30 years ago . . .

You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back,
Or you can open your eyes and see all that she has left...
"You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back,
Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.”

Words, as they say, are not enough – but boy, oh boy, did they come close.

So, Melanie, finally, we can say ‘rest in peace’. No one deserves that sense of peace more.

Sleep well".