Celebrating the season Sussex-style

A couple stand among trees, from which hang illuminated stars and moon.
Glow Wild at Wakehurst Aboretum. Photo credit: Laura Shelley

Chocolate Cake and Oysters

Jill Stevens is homesick for Sussex

Oysters! Sussex is no stranger to luxurious shellfish, but oysters have never been traditional Christmas fare at our flat in Hove. This year we’ll be tucking in though – because we’re forced by Brexit and Covid to be in France, where we care for my 95-year-old mother.

Sadly, our Sussex Christmas will be virtual, away from family and friends. Our customary Christmas family quiz will have to be Zoomed between several households on Christmas Day. By which time we’ll be stuffed, like the bird, having celebrated with a big meal on Christmas Eve, as they do in France. 

Our neighbours have invited us to celebrate with them. We’ll have oysters, venison that may have been briefly introduced to a fire, a chocolate bûche de Noël and champagne; we’ve said we’d rather not partake of the traditional foix gras. 

It will undoubtedly be delicious and fun. But we’ll miss pulling crackers, setting light to the Christmas pud, watching It’s a Wonderful Life on the TV, being sea-sprayed down on the beach (we’re four hours from the coast here) and battling the wind while walking the dog across the Downs on Boxing Day. 

We were about to move my mum to Sussex as the pandemic hit in March 2020. Lockdown put paid to our plans. We managed to cross the, by-then closed, border to be with her. And here we stay, as does Covid in various forms. Mask wearing in the streets is still customary here; it’s always been compulsory in shops and other public places. Entry to any restaurant, café, cinema, theatre or public event is refused to anyone without a passe sanitaire – proof that you’ve been vaccinated, three times if appropriate. 

But it’s Brexit not Covid that has forced us to become French residents. Otherwise, we would have to leave my mum after 90 days and not be allowed to return for another 90 days. Not feasible.

Because of people’s stricter adherence to Covid rules, we are probably safer here in the French countryside, with occasional trips to our nearest small town of Loches, than we would be in Brighton and Hove. But I’m homesick for Hove. So, happy Christmas Sussex. We hope to be with you next year.

Let it Glow, let it Glow…

Ginny Foster enjoys a Sussex light show

It’s freezing cold, very dark and it is Advent Sunday, 29 November.  The first candle of the Advent Crown has been lit, lunch eaten and the family are wrapping up warm before we all set off for Wakehurst Aboretum for Glow Wild.  My daughter, my niece and her children, my son and daughter in law with Poppy aged three and of course baby sister Martha are all here with us in Lewes. A family together at Christmas! Let joy be unconfined!  

And it was!  As we walked the paths of Wakehurst with our coloured lanterns – one per family but every child grabbed one – we were transported to fairy lands, circles of brightly lit mushrooms, and a pool with dandelion seeds floating above us that reflected in the water below gave us the impression we were walking on air.  

There were flocks of birds projected against bushes and rabbits that bounced in and out of their holes, seeds were blown across natural screens among the trees.  Moons and stars hanging in the trees and glow worms in the walled garden.  

Through another arch and the sculpture of a willow through the seasons was the enchanted centrepiece referencing so many tales.  And no apologies for this overused phrase – the faces of our children said it all.  Finally, back to the real world for hot chocolate, mulled wine and toasting marshmallows.

And what of Christmas itself? Greedy for more family reunion after the last minute solitary confinement of last year we still hope to be together but it won’t be in Sussex. We won’t walk through the dark to Southover Church for Midnight Communion but we didn’t last year either.  We will join in as strangers at the local church in London, singing carols and listening to the old story of a couple who were forced to leave home and have their baby in a far away place, in dirt and discomfort after a long journey. But here in Sussex there will be strangers too, families – possibly with newborn babies – also far from home, seeking refuge, after a long and dangerous journey, just as that family did so long ago. 

Let’s hope that they find a kindly welcome here, somewhere safe and warm to stay, the joy maybe of family reunion and, whatever their beliefs, the peace and goodwill that this season is supposed to engender.

Children and adults gaze in wonder at a tree whose leaves are illuminated against the dark of the night.
Another magical scene from Wakehurst’s Glow Wild. Photo credit: Laura Shelley

The Light and the Dark 

Ginny Smith is inspired by the night sky

Arriving home one December evening, my mind, as usual, full of things to do, phone calls to make, plans for Christmas… all banished in a second as I stepped out of my car. For there facing me was a deep blue sky lit by that diffused glow, unique to certain sharp, frosty evening winter skies, with a crescent moon rising above the spire of the little village church and Sirius – the Dog Star – its companion.  It was a magic sight and instantly recalled the legend of those three desert kings following a star to a stable in Bethlehem.  

Apart from a brief teenage flirtation with Catholicism I have never been religious. So I often wonder why I find such a deep connection with the rituals and celebrations of Christmas. Perhaps it’s something deep-rooted – almost race memory – about the contrast of light and dark, of facing the rigours of seemingly never-ending winter weather in the knowledge that spring and rebirth will come round again with the same inevitability as the turning of the Earth.

And most of all, for me, it’s the sense of community and connection felt at some Christmas celebrations.  I remember the magic of the candle-lit carol service held once a year at the old Saxon church on Hamsey Island, near Lewes.  As the light faded in the late afternoon, a crowd of locals gathered together to sing familiar tunes as past generations of Sussex people have done in this same church over almost a thousand years to celebrate the turn of the year and the birth of a child.    

“It was done for the community,” a family member said in describing her visit to the Nativity play held annually in the church in the Sussex village of Barcombe.  “All those volunteers from the village had come together to create this magic experience – and they managed it in the face of the Covid restrictions last year. They did it for the community, and to make people happy.” 

However fleeting, that’s the real Christmas spirit. Making people happy. The brief victory of light over darkness. 

On the Downs after Dinner

Ross McNally on the pleasures of a family walk

I waddle along behind my overexcited dog, bloated from another well received Christmas dinner and excess of wine, channeling Monty Python’s Mr Creosote.  This is a highlight of my Sussex Christmases: a Downland dog walk, either on the afternoon of Christmas Day or Boxing Day, depending on whether we’re at home or visiting family. 

Amid the chaos and excitement, this provides a moment of calming refreshment, albeit with a touch of heartburn and the fuzz of inebriation.  I watch birds flit between the bare branches, my mum throws the ball for the dog, and my sister and I joke about her diminutive height when walking alongside us, with the merriment that only Christmas brings.

We come to the familiar squeeze-stile straddling the path, which takes on new significance on the Christmas walk; so long as we fit through it, we can tell ourselves we haven’t overindulged on the roast potatoes. There’s a Christmas proverb there somewhere.

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