From Alasdair Crosby, editor of RURAL magazine.
Christmas is with us once again, despite the best (or worst) efforts of Covid.
It would be completely wrong and false to try to hi-jack the High Feast of Christmas into the orbit of RURAL magazine or this magazine’s e-mail newsletter by claiming it as some special ‘rural’ event. But the first Christmas and the story of it that has come down to us was… well… pretty rural, actually: the birth in the stable, the baby in the manger, surrounded by what Hilaire Belloc called ‘the Holy Animals’, and the shepherds who watched their flocks by night… they are all major parts of an un-every-day story of quite extraordinary Palestinian country-folk at the start of the 1st Century.
The Flood of Covid in early 2020 seems already to have divided the antediluvian world and the postdiluvian world. Incredible to think that the Trinity Nativity Service at the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society used to cram a large crowd of people closely together in a way that would be unthinkable at the moment except in the context of clubbing.
I remember in Trinity, as in Bethlehem, there was a donkey… and also sheep and (not mentioned in the traditional Nativity story) goats who got bored and who began eating the floral decorations. And, of course, the famous, one-and-only Noel the turkey, whose own carolling drowned out, at times, the voice of the Rector, the Rev Geoff Houghton, especially when the microphone didn’t quite work.
There were lots of children, and again I quote Belloc: ‘I fancy the children, when they think of Bethlehem, see it in their minds as if in the winter depth of England, which is at it should be.’
Christmas cards, which are supposed to evoke the seasonal spirit, as often as not show an idealised winter’s country scene, perhaps in some glorious idealism of a rural village or small town in England. All quite absurd, perhaps, and as often as not sentimental and gooey-nostalgic, but making the point that Christmas-time is the celebration not only of one special miraculous child (and thus of all miraculous children), but also of localism and of local community – in particular, the rural communities from which we all, at one time or another, originated.
And what we crave, perhaps, at this time of year (and especially as we cower in our home bunkers once again in the face of the Covid menace), is to return not only to some sort of normality, but also to some sense of genuine and joyful conviviality within a community.
Here is what an early 19th Century writer, Henry Inglis, had to say about the Jersey Christmases that he encountered: ‘On these occasions, there is a family gathering, 20 or 30 perhaps, being assembled, including all who are related to the heads of a family, as far as cousinship. On these occasions the soupe à choux is discarded; fresh pork is substituted for its pickled relative; roast beef, such as would not disgrace the table of an English squire, takes its place ; perhaps even the market is defrauded of its goose, and puddings even “smoke upon the board”.
‘Mountains of cakes too accompany tea; and punch and hot wine laugh for once at frugality. Eating and drinking, although the staple amusement, is not the only one. Cards and dominoes are introduced, and sous are freely sported; while the Christmas song, the laugh and the jest go round.’
Both local urban and rural communities are harder to sustain than ever before. But to anchor the celebration of Christmas with rural – or at least local – events (of which the Trinity Nativity was such a good example), is a seasonal and timely reminder that the countryside is where communities keep their soul, in Jersey as elsewhere.
And also, in Jersey as elsewhere, we are in danger of losing our soul to over-development, urbanisation and planning re-zoning and consequent loss of community – and that, just as in Royal David’s city, in many of a Jersey rural luxury home converted from farm and farmhouse, once stood a lowly cattle shed.
With best wishes for a Merry Christmas and Covid-free 2022