A vignette from the archives on theme of churches.
As it was set in early January I could only connect church with Christmas.
So I wrote about cake, as you do.
Two days until Christmas and the snow is just the icing on the cake. Literally. Outside the snow has mostly melted away or compacted to a slippery brown fudge, much less festive than the sugar and egg-white idyll of the traditional family Christmas cake. The scene is set with a plaster polar bear peeping out from frosty model trees at the foot of a marzipan hill. The hill is crowned with a two-inch plaster effigy of a church with a red brick square tower and bright stained glass windows in a creamy rendered nave.
A couple of miles away stands the real thing, postcard perfect on its hill-on-a-hill, though thankfully without any bears in the woods. By accident or design, the model church bears a remarkable resemblance to its architectural counterpart, standing on a site that has been used as a place of worship for thousands of years. The setting, high above the farmland, woods and homes, is an obvious choice for a beacon of faith in the community. Once a pagan place of worship; then a wooden Saxon chapel; then a Norman stone church, from which the current nave remains with its characteristic simple arches. Gradually the building took shape from thereon in; 17th Century chancel; 18th Century North Aisle; Victorian tower. From the top you can see five counties.
Inside, the church is a three dimensional realisation of memory and history: my own, and generations before me who have worn smooth the sloping pews. Riddled with woodworm drill holes, slightly too low, slightly too narrow, they tip you slightly too far forwards: a postural warning against mid-sermon slumber, you must stay alert to stay in your seat. It smells of Church: of polished wood, dust, lilies and cut carnation stems; of beeswax, Christingle oranges, pine branches and smoking candlewicks. Christmas in church is so atmospheric. Perhaps that’s why I like churches so much, they represent a time in my past, a comfortable nostalgia of when faith seemed obvious, and religion was a concept unbesmirched by the ethics and politics that rattle around my head today. I hear they issue tickets for the Christingle service now. Even a religious Christmas seems to be getting more commercialised.
Earlier that week I’d been to pick holly up at the church. Holly trees are common in churchyards having sprouted from wreaths laid on Victorian graves. Gathering the berried twigs I felt like I was inside a Christmas card, or with the weather we were having, more like on top of the cake.
Back home my churchyard prunings deck the halls. I put the finishing touches to the cake: peopling the snowy plateau with battered plaster Eskimo children, and Santa in his one-deer open sleigh. Down the marzipan hill an imp on a sledge hurtles towards sugary oblivion. There’s a family joke about my sister once doing much the same down the real life version of the hill. There’s a reason why the first fence post at the bottom of the churchyard is at such a jaunty angle, you know.
This account is mostly based on Christmas 2009, but is a memory-pastiche from several Christmases. The church featured is St James’, Finchampstead in Berkshire, England. The Christmas-card worthy snow scenes used came from their online photo archive.
* on the pictured version of the cake Santa and the Sledging Imp appear to have switched positions. The polar bear is hidden behind the snowman. Oh and just to confuse everyone the gatepost in the last photo isn’t the one that got sledged into. Plus the church has since undergone a complete refit so the pews are now non-slopey, comfortable and free from woodworm