Oscar Wilde quipped that except at Christmas the heart is made to be broken – and so is the daily round of everything, no matter how much we are enjoying it, school being no exception. Every school breaks up for Christmas in its own unique way. The trick is to do it in gladsome spirit without descending to festive farcicality.
Things in schools have been known to get crazily out of hand but not, apparently, at Fyling Hall, where the last couple of days of the Autumn term were a model of measured conviviality, everything sensible and relaxed, starting decorously, escalating merrily and culminating in a joyous celebration.
Lessons went on pretty much as usual on the Tuesday, the day for maintaining a certain decorum and pretence of normality, albeit some of the most tuneful students were absent, practising carols. The Junior School held its annual nativity play, a glorious success by all accounts, and the dining hall became a Christmas Fayre, thronged with parents and staff and pupils snapping up the bargains, the sweetmeats, the perfumed goodies, the bric-a-brac. It was our very own indoor version of those street markets held across Europe during the four weeks of Advent with widespread appeal. Staff had given up their parking places and been ferried back from a remote carpark. Such changes to routine are all part of the spice of variety, jolly in seasonal context.
Wednesday, the penultimate day
The day of festive escalation, began with lessons short and harmonious, or so it seemed. Everybody in school, apart from the writer of this blog who had not been fully apprised of the custom, was in casual clothes. Some indeed were in fancy dress. The Head of Biology was a futuristic vision in orange, for example. Many, overnight, had sprouted reindeer antlers. Funny hats were the (dis)order of the day. That indefinable spirit of Christmas was in the air, wafting around like a potent perfume, seen in the smiles of young people, happiness shining out of their eyes. Before long the delicious aroma of Christmas lunch was on the breeze and speculation rife about who would be serving whom.
Now, one of the quaint and rather touching customs of the school is that the staff serve the pupils, wait on them dutifully at table, on this special day. After the crackers had been pulled, the paper hats donned, the jokey missives found to be not that funny, the eating commenced. Turkey, ‘pigs-in-blankets’, stuffing, roast potatoes, carrots and sprouts: they were all there in delicious abundance, enough on each table for a Falkands’ expedition. Nevertheless teachers were persuaded to go back and, rather more successfully than Oliver Twist, to return with ‘seconds’ and sometimes even ‘thirds’. At some stage, a spontaneous round of applause broke out for the kitchen staff who were brought forth, like opera singers, to take a bow. For dessert there was Christmas pudding and white sauce or chocolate ice-cream.
After lunch there was an assembly in the sports’ hall for the entire school. It was a time for the Headmaster to reflect on the term’s manifold achievements and to bestow much praise on his pupils and a little on some of his male members of staff for their charitable efforts in affecting moustaches in Movember. Among the things high on the agenda, of course, was the giving out of merit awards, always an occasion for much cheering.
Thursday, the day of celebration
The final day began with pupils – their familiar clothes happily restored – milling in tutor groups, distributing their cards, engaging in last-minute banter, which for the boarders seemed to be mostly along the lines of they wished they could take their friends back with them. Some made do with the promise to Skype.
The buses were arriving to take us to church and the rich culminating point of the term, the going-down ceremony in the shape of a carol concert. This, believe it or not, is the bit students will remember fondly in fifty years’ time, the trip to church and the final service. They will never forget such occasions; will remember them as even better, perhaps, than they found them at the time. Even in an increasingly secular age, the candles, the crib, the carols, all part of the great Christian celebration of the Creation, still feel right and as they should be, as it ever was.
The Parish Church of St Stephens is a Gothic gem which, I fancy, conforms to the late-to-mid-nineteeth-century practice of making provincial churches outwardly unostentatious – apart, perhaps, in this case, from the strikingly red-tiled roof and the size of its tower – but surprisingly elegant inside. With the unusual addition of an arcade, marked off by octagonal pillars, each with vine-leafed capitals, in addition to the ribbed arches of the roof of the nave, the exquisite vaulting of the apse and, not least, the Pre-Raphaelite windows, it is not necessarily what one might expect to stumble upon in a place which was once relatively inaccessible.
All got up for the season, the Christmas trees on tables in the arcade alternating in white and green, beneath gleaning brass plaques, the nativity scenes from local schools displayed proudly, it provides a beautiful setting for the school’s valediction and all the encouragement needed for everyone to sing in full-throated ease The First Noel,Hark The Herald Angels Sing and O Come All Ye Faithful. The school choir, the Junior Choir and the senior vocal group, all with finely tuned in-part harmonies, provided extraordinarily beautiful music, of an amazingly high standard for a small school.
The spoken word was represented equally well. Toby Richardson, of Year 8, delivered his prize-winning poem, Christmas Eve 1914, with great feeling, a moving lamentation of the suffering of the Great War, the centenary of whose ending was celebrated in November. Intercut by Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, sung beautifully by our German student, Franziska Herbermann, it was particularly poignant.
Had this been the theatre we might have said Year Four pupil Skye Telling just about stole the show with her powerfully confident reading of her own prize-winning, It’s Christmas, whose rhyming couplets, scanning beautifully, were a species of perfection. Mrs. White, a veteran of countless such occasions and to the manner born, climbed the pulpit to deliver her own special seasonal version of Thomas Hood’s well-loved poem I Remember.
Before giving the Blessing, the Reverend Simon Smale said: ‘What a superb service we have just had. I enjoyed it tremendously.’ He was clearly giving expression to everyone’s thoughts.
And so on a frostily cold day the term came to the warmest of ends with everyone parting with the words ‘Merry Christmas’.