It's Christmas Eve. To St Thomas the Apostle Parish Church (South Wigston with Glen Parva) for the Christingle celebration this afternoon, held in aid of the Children's Society. My son Harry is singing in the choir. Everyone attending has been asked to bring a Christmas present to donate for a deprived child, suitably wrapped, with appropriate gender and age clearly marked on it. these toys will be collected and distributed to children here or abroad by the Salvation Army.
The church is full, with more than 350 people crowded in. Alastair, Rabia and I get the last three seats, right in the back in the corner. On the odd Sunday when I stay for the service in which Harry is singing, there are often more in the choir than there are in the pews. It's good to be here at one of those occasions when the Church comes more fully alive, above the squeaks, squeals and burbles of babies, children and toddlers - and amid the coughs and sneezes of adults too! You get a sense of the church being at the heart of the community today; and whether or not one buys into the theology seems not to matter right now. It's good to be here, good to be sharing this special time. When the Vicar (Rev. Peter Day) comes to the back of the church to bless the crib, he says that those children who cannot see what's going on can stand on the chairs (as long as a responsible older person is holding them steady).
Christingle (which means "Christ's Light") is a tradition dating back some 300 years ago to what is now the Czech Republic. The custom of giving out lighted candles in these services originates from the Moravian Church in Germany in 1747 but they weren’t introduced to the Anglican Church in England until 1968. Christingle can be celebrated any time from Advent in December till up to three weeks after Christmas in January. Christingle celebrations take place in schools, youth groups and churches, with more than half a million kids taking part each year all over the country.
The bells at St Thomas haven't been rung for some time as they don't have enough volunteer bell ringers. But we're treated to something I've never seen before inside the church: the ringing of hand bells by a team of performers, half a dozen strong. They play assorted carols then launch into some popular Christmas songs, including a singalong version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"!
The boys of the choir sing an anthem: "The Truth from Above" by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I love listening to Harry singing in the choir. I know I can't pick out his voice, but I find it thrilling to know he's in the mix.
During the singing of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" we are all invited to come to the front of the church and receive a Christingle. We filter down the central aisle, then return to our seats via the two side aisles.The Christingle consists of an orange with a candle protruding from the top of it, a red ribbon around the middle and sweets on cocktail sticks (jelly babies today). Each part of a Christingle stands for something:
- Orange – the world
- Candle – Jesus, light of the world
- Red ribbon – the blood of Jesus, shed for the people of the world
- Cocktail sticks and sweets – the seasons and all the good things in our world
When everyone has their Christingle, the lights are put out and we sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing", the church lit only by the candles in our oranges. The Vicar gives the blessing then, on the count of three, we blow out our candles and the Christmas tree lights come on.
Harry's too young to sing in Midnight Mass tonight, but he'll be back here for the Christmas morning service, 0930 tomorrow. On the way back to his mum's house, he tells me that some of the boys in the choir barbecue the jelly babies on their cocktail sticks over the flame of the candle. The ingenuity of naughty schoolboys has no end (I should know - after all, I used to be one!)