Daily Decoration: Advent candle

A red candle marked with gold figures up to 24. It has burned down as far as the figure 19. In the foreground, a cardboard angel holds a banner saying FEAR NOT.

‘Ah,’ said Tony, ‘it’s the candle.’

‘Mm?’

‘Something in my brain said, ah, that’s Christmas. It’s the smell of the candle.’

He has a point. For those of us who spent a lot of time in churches in our childhood, candles smell of Christmas all by themselves; there’s no need to add pine or cinnamon and put it in a fancy jar. Although I’m not sure how he hasn’t noticed it before, because, as you see, I’ve been burning this one all through Advent. And in fact it isn’t Christmas yet.

We buy each other chocolate Advent calendars, but I get the candle for myself. I have a fairly well-defined set of preferences. Not white – which usually, as this year, means red. Not conical (I made that mistake one year and regretted it as the time to burn through each number increased daily). Not too hideous. This one’s pretty good, though it could have done with some blank space at the bottom. As things stand, I’m going to have to take it out of its bottle before I get down to 24 and put it in some sand or something. I’d rather not risk cracking the glass.

The bottle is something of a hero of antiquity. It dates from my student years – 2006, to be precise. It says so on the side, courtesy of an Exeter University Methodist and Anglican Society glass painting evening. 2006 was the year I graduated. This year’s Freshers were born the year that I was a Fresher.

This September we went down to the West Country: took the sleeper to Penzance and worked our way back up again on a selection of trains and buses. Excellent fun (I particularly recommend taking the open-topped bus around Land’s End). We stopped off at Exeter and went to Evensong at the university chapel, eighteen years (give or take) after we first met there. A lot has changed – the choir, for a start, is a lot more competent and a lot tidier than we ever were; the room where I painted that bottle has been taken out of use, except for storage – but I had a very strong sense that the important things were still the same.

The glorious ceiling. The high clear windows. Radcliffe responses and Greater love hath no man.

Or, perhaps, the same but more so. The singing better, the choir robed, the new scholars inducted with a formal blessing. The implicit inclusion of queer Anglicans made explicit.

A sense of a beginning.

Daily Decoration: German roundels

Three laser-cut plywood Christmas tree decorations, with (left to right) a nativity scene, a church with an onion dome, and an angel kneeling on a shooting star), each in a circle with stars around the edge

These three roundels (I don’t think I can really call them baubles when they’re flat) are part of a set that was a Christmas present from my aunt several years ago. This is the aunt who lives in Germany, near Frankfurt, and in 2007 I spent a couple of months living with her and her family while I was trying to work out what to do with my life.

I don’t remember any of the churches in and around Frankfurt looking much like the one in the middle there. That’s a style that I associate more with Bavaria and Austria. When I was out there I attended a charismatic church led by one of my aunt’s colleagues. It was a bit of an eye-opener after a a childhood in rural Anglicanism and three years at the university chapel. Somebody had a prophetic image for me. I’d never had one of those before, and I didn’t really know what to do about it, though in retrospect I don’t think they were far off.

One of the questions associated with moving to a new place is: where will I go to church? Pretty soon after I came back from Germany, I moved to Guildford. I was miserable for a lot of the time that I lived in Guildford, but the one thing I never regretted was ending up at Holy Trinity for the Advent Carol Service (I’d been aiming for the cathedral, but had drastically misjudged the time it would have taken to walk there). It was just the church I needed: it had an inclusive approach, intelligent preaching, a reassuring stability, and, in its excellent but non-auditioned choir, a way that I could contribute even when my confidence was absolutely shot and I was hanging on by a thread. We kept going there even after we moved to Woking and I was quite a bit saner.

Later, we moved to Cambridge – Chesterton, to be precise. I thought that St Andrew’s was our parish church. In fact, it wasn’t, but it was the church I needed. Not that I immediately realised this. We happened to land on a family service, which was not really our thing. A couple of months later, we hit a sung eucharist and found that there was indeed a choir that we could join. I went to family services quite a bit more when we were settled there, though. I ended up contributing more than I’d expected, too: by the time we moved on, I was a PCC member, leader of the twenties and thirties study group, and occasional reader and intercessor, as well as a choir member.

I mentioned last year that moving house in a pandemic had its advantages. One of those was the fact that church went online, so I could hang on at St Andrew’s for far longer than would have been feasible in other times. I even got involved in leading informal worship (I’d imagine all that’s still on Youtube) and was still doing that up until this summer. In theory, the great onlining could also have meant that I could get a taste of other churches via their Youtube channels, though in fact I didn’t do any particular church shopping that way. When the churches opened up again after the long 2020 closure I started going to Ely Cathedral. I’m still feeling like a complete newbie (pandemic time may have something to do with this) but I’m starting to get to know people and get involved in things.

I always do seem to end up at the church I need, even if it’s not immediately obvious why that’s the case. It’s almost as if someone has a better idea than I do…

As for working out what to do with my life: well, it all worked out, but not because of any particular effort or thought on my part, and it took rather longer than two months. I’m hoping to get back to Germany next year.