Monday 20th May 2019
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Words: Steffie Shields
Featured in the December 2016 issue

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Steffie Shields shares bright and festive ideas.

The minute my daughter Gabrielle spies satsumas in the supermarkets, her mood rises. This year I beat her to thinking about Christmas. In August, visiting old haunts in Northumberland, the sight of a simple stained glass mobile, rich in colour, hanging from a friend’s rose pergola stopped me in my tracks. Catherine’s star, as I call it – and she is a star because she devised and created it herself – had me planning my Christmas card! 

Talking of Northumberland, some readers may remember that last year I reminisced about a special Christmas. On Boxing Day, we took my parents to see the remote and isolated Church of the Holy Trinity dating back to the eleventh century, late afternoon, when it was already in darkness, nestling below the Cheviot hills. We fumbled around trying to find a light switch. Eventually successful, we were suddenly overwhelmed by the amazing ancient and glowing interior, complete with little Christmas tree adorned with antique tinsel and baubles.

This summer, thanks to Catherine and her husband Tim taking us back to Old Bewick, by special request, I relived that shared moment of magical discovery, from pitch black to Christmas light. I pondered why, of the many churches I have visited, it remains one of the most beautiful. It must be the celestial blue arc of gold stars above the altar that fires the imagination, causing a frisson of pleasure as rewarding as a schoolchild’s first gold star for getting ten out of ten for spelling or sums.  Stars live long in the memory.

Then again, whatever the season, every time I walk past St Bartholomew’s, Welby, I am reminded of Christmas! One old gravestone stands out, though the elements have long since worn away its inscription. An unusual silhouette, a six-pointed star, was once carved out by the stone-mason. Often a sign of the Jewish faith; in Christianity, this is sometimes called the star of creation. 

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding…

These words, once learned, are never forgotten, as with all the best traditional carols. Create a star mosaic from china shards in cement, a focal point for patio, conservatory or garden room. As falling leaves in our gardens give way to bare twigs and branches so the red-berried holly, outclassing ivy and other brooding dark evergreens, begins to shine. Variegated forms make specimen garden trees, edged with gold, or flash of silver, or cream. Holly stands for ‘foresight’. Plan ahead. Make a wonderful wreath with holly for your front door, trimmed with scarlet red ribbon and shiny red apples. Add four candles to make an Advent wreath for your table. Intertwine some ivy for the hidden meaning of ‘friendship’ and ‘fidelity’ to enhance your Christmas welcome. Mistletoe will ward off evil spirits and bring peace, even the odd snatched kiss!

Be creative. Let alone a great star to twinkle on top of your Christmas tree indoors, why not visit your nearest garden centre, buy LED or battery-operated stars to add a star or two to your garden or porch? Garden stars would make a Christmas gift for special chums that will look fantastic if it snows. My husband winds a string of lights in the shape of a large star on our Pyracantha bush against the front wall of the house. In California, where we lived for two years in the 1970s, the charming custom every Christmas Eve was to line and light the path for baby Jesus to come to your house with flickering candles as ‘lamps’ inside large brown paper bags, weighted down with sand, to prevent the breeze from blowing them out! I wonder if this has all gone wired and digital now?

One superb hardy shrub I would recommend as a more long-lasting gift: Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ will make a stellar feature in the garden. This dogwood lives up to its name when its late-clinging leaves and flame-coloured stems are caught by low winter sunbeams. The Star of Bethlehem, Ornithogalum umbellatum, a lily-family bulb appropriate to the season, could fill the Christmas stocking of a keen gardener with promise of late spring or early summer blooms rather like wild garlic without the noxious odour!

The children of Fenstanton & Hilton Primary, Cambridgeshire, are definite stars. They designed a joyously celebratory stained glass window for the village hall, a tercentenary tribute to world-famous landscape architect ‘Capability’ Brown who owned the Fenstanton estate and lies buried in the nearby church of St Peter and Paul. Their imagined ‘natural’ landscape makes me think of Belvoir Castle overlooking the wider Brown-inspired park landscape which has been undergoing remarkable restoration since his grand plans came to light in the Duke of Rutland’s family archive. As it happened, Brown was there at Christmas, shortly before he died in February 1783. He would have undoubtedly paused to take in the great view over the Vale of Belvoir towards Lincoln Cathedral. He would be amazed and pleased to see today’s improvements and tree-planting for the future inspired by his advice and ideas.

You too can follow in celebrated footsteps, not only Brown’s, but also those of Queen Victoria and her consort Albert who famously introduced the charming idea of bringing a Christmas fir tree into our homes to add to the fun and meaning of the festivities. This year Belvoir Castle’s ‘Christmas Extravaganza’ offers the opportunity to walk up the winding drive and enjoy a visit to imagine right royal Victorian merriments in this magnificent setting. Splendid Doddington Hall will also be specially dressed for ‘A Fairy Tale Christmas‘ with the beautiful gardens open for winter walks.

I wonder, will Christmas find you looking at the stars again, reviving memories of loved ones no longer with us? Traditional, heart-warming church services, with all the favourite carols, will add to family blessings. Doubtless, the best and brightest twinkling stars as 25th December approaches will be in our children’s and grandchildren’s eyes. Wishing one and all a Merry Christmas!

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