Preparing for Christmas – a drama of darkness into light

November has been a month of darkness; of dark nights, lockdown, fear and uncertainty but Advent tells a different story.

We mark the start of our preparations for Christmas this Advent Sunday with the news of the return of public worship inside our buildings and the chance to do a spot of carol singing outside too!

November was a month in lockdown. Cathedrals started the month by pledging themselves to a month of prayer following the call by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and other senior church leaders.

They led prayers each evening for the NHS, frontline workers and all those who have lost loved ones and tolled their bells where they were able.

Michael Hampel, Vice Dean and Precentor at Durham Cathedral said:

“Durham Cathedral has wrapped itself in prayer during lockdown and the daily call to prayer for the nation has enriched our focus on God’s plans and purposes for us. We pray that God will walk with us out of lockdown and continue to enable and refresh us all as we seek the way forward together.”

St Albans Cathedral lit up the skies for Bonfire Night following a super successful crowdfunding campaign to create a socially distanced firework display from undisclosed locations across the city after the usual event was cancelled due to the pandemics. The Look Up Together campaign was so successful it raised over £30,000 for local charities too.

Salisbury Cathedral announced it would be piercing the night sky with three beams of light every night until the end of lockdown as a mark of hope and cathedrals took their Remembrance services online featuring virtual poppy drops, remote civic services and wreath laying.

There were more grants announced from the Government’s Cultural Recovery Fund with 28 cathedrals benefitting including grants of £2.1m to St Paul’s and £1.9m to Durham Cathedral to help with financial stability.

As news of a possible vaccine programme broke, many of our cathedrals offered their spaces to their local health providers including Blackburn Cathedral, situated in the Blackburn with Darwen local authority area, the community has been in effective lockdown since July.

The Dean of Blackburn, the Very Revd Peter Howell Jones said:

“At the heart of the Christian faith is love and hospitality, and a God that cares for all people.

“It is only right we offer our building as a safe and accessible space for this exciting inoculation plan and be prepared to serve the nation in these times of deep uncertainty and fear.”

Cathedrals began to share their plans for Advent; Durham Cathedral teamed up with the County Durham Community Foundation in a fundraising Christmas card campaign to spread comfort and joy amongst the most vulnerable or isolated communities.

Bradford invited people to join them online for a Stir up Sunday event; Peterborough Cathedral announced that their Covid-19 prayer trail: All we have lost – was now available as series of short videos online with music, readings and images to help the viewer reflect on the effects of the pandemic and find hope.

Lincoln Cathedral was the first to see a Christmas Tree put up outside its West End when the local hospice, St Barnabas delivered the 30 ft tree in readiness for their annual Light Up a Life events and torchlight procession which this year will be available online.

A model of Truro Cathedral featuring a 3.8m high spire was lit up in fairy lights for the city’s first Virtual Christmas lights switch on. Ely and Ripon cathedrals took their popular Christmas fairs online with extended shopping days in a bid to support their small independent local traders in lockdown in these difficult times. Ely saw a record 9,000 visitors to the fair online on its first day.

Joss Palmer, Event Manager at Ely Cathedral said,

“We have been amazed at everyone’s reaction to the Virtual Christmas Fair. Despite missing the physical experience – the buzz of shoppers, the reindeer, the smell of mulled wine and rides on the Victorian carousel – we already feel this online event has bought some much needed joy. So many of our exhibitors are relatively small independent businesses who rely on these large-scale events and seasonal sales for their livelihood and it is important that we are able to support them at such a challenging time. “

Other cathedrals released details of virtual Advent calendars, pre-recorded Advent meditations, socially distanced Christingles and Crib services, and York Minster announced that its famous Advent wreath – which has not been displayed since 2017 due to scaffolding – will once again be raised for Advent Sunday.

The Dean of York, the Right Revd Jonathan Frost, said:

“The four weeks of Advent give us all an opportunity to prepare for Christmas, to reassess priorities and to allow the Light of Christ into the dark and hurt corners of our lives. For many of us the experience of Covid-19 will have led to a fresh realisation of what really matters most.”