The build up to the holidays here in England was very similar to that at home. Christmas paraphernalia appeared in the stores concurrent with Halloween candy. Sales started right around Black Friday and ramped up to a fevered pace as the Advent calendar advanced. The Christmas lights went up in town, tacky holiday sweaters abounded, and celebrations occurred.
I approached this season with a bit of trepidation because most of my friends here would have returned home to celebrate, and of course all my friends and family at home are an ocean away. I had convinced myself that that meant less hassle and more time to write an onerous number of words about Shakespeare due shortly after the New Year. But the closer it got, the lonelier I felt, and I began to fear a really blue period coming on – and not the kind that helped Picasso create some masterpieces – the kind that would prevent me writing a word and keep me curled up on my small sofa all day.
But, to paraphrase Blanche du Bois, I underestimated the kindness of strangers or, more accurately, former strangers who are now friends. The first people I met in Stratford, who own a great B&B near the center of town (let me know if you’re coming to visit, and I’ll put you in touch) have become good friends and have taken it very graciously upon themselves to introduce me to all things English. On December 23, that included a rugby match between the Wasps and Gloucester. Our seats in Ricoh Arena in Coventry were close enough to the goal posts that I could almost touch the scantily clad and excessively muscular rugby lads. But I behaved and simply thoroughly enjoyed a rousing match and victory by the hometown Wasps. The crescent moon rose in a pinkish-orangeish sky between the goal posts throughout the match and finally turned a dark grape purple to make a perfect backdrop for the spectacular post-match fireworks show.
On Christmas Eve I decided to walk down the road to Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, for their midnight service. I am not particularly religious but felt that it would be a lovely way to join my adopted community for quiet reflection. I always find houses of worship, of all denominations, to be calming and grounding spaces. And what a special evening it was. The church, some parts of which date back to the 1200s, was tastefully adorned with candles below the massive leaded glass windows. The old wooden beam ceiling was up lit to a warm mahogany glow. The full choir in robed regalia filled the vast space with their voices in delicious harmony with the immense antique pipe organ. I’d never heard it played before, and it, along with the bells clanging in the tower, produced vibrations that I felt throughout my body down to my toes resting on the same stone floors that John and Mary Shakespeare traversed when they brought their son William to be baptized there. The vicar mentioned both Star Wars and Star Trek in his timely sermon, and the compassion and camaraderie among the parishioners was palpable and contagious.
On Christmas morning, FaceTime allowed me to feel almost like I was home with my family opening presents, although I couldn’t stay for the traditional pancake breakfast. I stopped by my local, The West End, to give Cooper the big dog a cuddle – it was packed to overflowing with families who’d gathered there to celebrate the day.
For lunch, I walked past the church along the curve of the Avon, to the home of a fellow volunteer at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust who insisted that I join her and her family for their Christmas meal. I resisted because I felt very reluctant to intrude on their time together, but I am very glad that she persisted. Their flat overlooks Lucy’s Mill and the fields across the Avon. The gentle rush of the falls was all the background music we needed for the afternoon. We could see a parade of river barges, swans and ducks, and people out for an afternoon constitutional with their dogs.
My friend and her husband and their son and daughter-in-law were perfect hosts and treated me to an English Christmas meal, not too different from our own, with the possible exception of delicious parsnips and a delectable flambé traditional Christmas pudding (which is no easy feat to make, I now understand). We opened Christmas crackers with arms intertwined before the meal and wore our paper crowns throughout. We watched the Queen give her customary Christmas address, clad in a sparkly dress with a twinkle still in her eye at 91.
Just after I got back to my flat – they insisted on walking me back so I wouldn’t make the short trip alone – the skies opened up, and I curled up on that couch and listened to the rain and wind fight with each other to reach the windows. But I instead of sadness, I sat and listened, soothed by the sound and the satiety of good food and security of good friends.
Photos by Diane Lowman