While most of us are content with chocolates in our Christmas Advent calendars, Amy and her neighbours in Whitehall Park, London, go about things a little differently....
I have fond memories of carol singing with neighbours in the cul-de-sac where I grew up. Bouncing around on the doorsteps as the sherry flowed, carol singing was how I first got to know the other kids in our neighbourhood and it became my parents' way of touching base with the neighbours each year. So, when my husband and I moved into our home on a terraced street in North London and started a family of our own, I began thinking about how community could become part of our Christmas too.
Carol singing wouldn’t work in our neighbourhood: it is so big that turning up at people’s houses to sing would feel like cold-calling. So I did some research on other options and stumbled across a Swedish tradition called a Living Advent Calendar.
A Living Advent Calendar can work in a variety of different ways, but they centre on revealing a surprise in the neighbourhood on each day in the run up to Christmas. There are only a small number of these projects in the UK. The calendar in Henley on Thames features 24 mini-performances from musicians, storytellers and dancers, hosted in shops or public buildings. The project in Saltaire, outside Bradford, uses the windows of people’s homes and features displays from numerous artists living in the village. A calendar run in Greenwich by St Alfege Church decorates windows around a different theme from the Christmas story each year.
Inspired by these examples, I set about working with the local residents' association, our neighbourhood church and local school to put together the Whitehall Park Living Advent Calendar. The project brings together 24 volunteers from homes and community hubs, who take it in turns to reveal a festive window on each different day in the run-up to Christmas. Each night at 6:30pm, friends and neighbours gather on the pavement, enjoying mince pies, mulled wine and merriment as they watch the ‘switch-on’ of the window. The displays stay illuminated until Twelfth Night, and we produce a map so that people can do a tour of the different windows.
The variety of displays has been fantastic. We have had everything from prancing reindeer to the northern lights, to silhouettes of the London skyline. One neighbour made an illuminated Christmas tree entirely from Lego, while another created a shimmering Rudolf complete with a flashing nose. The local school created a display with a note from every child with their Christmas wish from Santa, and we have even had a switch-on accompanied by guitars and carols.
One of the lovely things about the project has been the opportunity to get to know other people in the neighbourhood. Life in London can often be very anonymous and isolated, and it has been genuinely heart-warming to share hospitality and Christmas cheer with people who usually might stand in silence pressed up against a tube carriage. Over the course of the project you often see familiar faces turning up each night, and the repeated nature of the switch-ons creates a great opportunity to go beyond the initial chit-chat. For me, it has been a fantastic opportunity to build precious friendships and build closer ties with my neighbours, and, for the rest of the year, I will look forward to bumping into friendly faces on my way to the shops.
Coordinating the Living Advent Calendar has been an absolutely fantastic experience, and I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to build a stronger neighbourhood and spread Christmas cheer!
Life in London can often be very anonymous and isolated, and it has been genuinely heart-warming to share hospitality and Christmas cheer with people who usually might stand in silence pressed up against a tube carriage.