Gathering around the tree in the bleak midwinter

The evening is crisp. The clouds cannot entirely cover the brilliant illumination of the moon. To the delight of my son, our cold breath is visible in the night air.

As the car engine reluctantly grumbles into life, I fiddle with the dial on the radio. I know that even on my ancient vehicle there is the facility to automatically store the channels I like to listen to. But still I am drawn to doing it manually.

I find something I like and turn the volume up slightly. Not quite in tune, I mumble the words of the familiar old carol under my breath.

In the bleak midwinter

Frosty wind made moan

Earth stood hard as iron

Water like a stone.

I don’t get much further as my son complains about my choice of music. He wants to listen to something electronic on mummy’s phone. I smile indulgently and click the radio back to silent.

It is a short drive to the centre of the village. The same drive that we undertake every morning on the way to school. I am still humming the melody composed by Holst as the car crawls up the hill.

We are early and I’m half expecting us to be the first to arrive at the Christmas tree. Instead, as I drive past, I see that a small crowd has already gathered and a brass band is playing. I drive on a bit, passing a few empty parking spaces and pretending not to hear the playful protests of my wife and son. On a bitter but dry Sunday night, it is a shame not to have a short walk.

As we dander back down the hill I see the little bakery has stayed open late, offering free hot chocolate for under 12s. We enter and order steaming drinks and a cookie iced to look like a reindeer for my boy. My wife chats briefly with the shop owner.

By the time we get to the tree, several hundred people are there. The crowd is bigger than I had expected. I think about how, due to Covid, this is the first time in three years we have been able to hold this event. Perhaps we appreciate it a little bit more now.

A woman hands out little books with the words of carols. I remove my gloves and take one. I brought the gloves to protect my hands against the harsh winter chill, but I can’t turn the pages or take photos on my phone when I’m wearing them. They become just one more unwelcome thing to carry.

I study the handsome large tree with the oversized golden baubles in the little clearing in front of the crowd. The brass band, now playing Away in a Manger, are seated to the side. Some children run around the tree and we exchange greetings with other parents.

Take away the Covid years, and this is an annual tradition. I think about how I stood in much the same spot when my son was still in a buggy. Another year when mummy carried him sleeping through the ceremony. Another when he sat high on my shoulders to get a better view of the tree. Another when he rolled his eyes and complained throughout that he was bored.

Now, he is standing almost as tall as his daddy. I put a comforting hand on his shoulder, but he turns around and gives me a quizzical stare.

A brief prayer service begins. There are clergy here from the Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Catholic churches. I have a slight feeling of being an imposter, in that I do not follow any faith. I comfort myself with the sense of welcoming which comes from being within a crowd. Messages of concern are expressed for those who are struggling to cope this winter. This is a sentiment which is common, I hope, to those with faith and without.

Then the carols begin. I open the little white book and begin to belt out the lyrics of Once in Royal David’s City as a giant tuba honks beside me.

I have always had complex feelings of insecurity about my own voice and a fear of singing in public. I have been known to lip-sync during renditions of Happy Birthday at parties. Perhaps now, close to 50, I have reached a point where I just don’t care anymore. I summon the notes from somewhere deep inside my lungs and project them high into the cold night air.

I notice that the louder I sing, the more it seems to amuse my son. This encourages me to increase the volume even more. Soon he is opening his mouth wide and waving his arms in a comic impression of an opera singer as he mimics my enthusiasm.

My lusty efforts continue through Oh Little Town of Bethlehem and Silent Night. By the time we reach Mendelssohn’s Hark! The Herald Angels Sing I believe I am rivalling the deep blasts of the tuba.

The mayor comes to the microphone to herald the lighting of the Christmas tree. He leads the children in a countdown from five. When he reaches zero nothing happens and there is mirth within the crowd. The mayor begins another countdown, this time from 10. Eventually the tree is illuminated to cheers and applause. The shimmering vertical lines of white lights sparkle like tiny, distant stars.

The brass band comes to life again, this time with a more playful feel. They play Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. I notice that my son is bouncing up and down in time to the melodies. I try to capture some footage of him on my phone, but he quickly notices, and I have to put the mobile back in my pocket.

The service finishes and the crowd quickly disperses. A small queue has formed outside the bakery. I hear a couple of men enquiring of each other about the score of the England match.

We walk up the hill towards our car. The air on this night in the bleak midwinter retains its harsh bite, but we all feel just a bit warmer now.

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