Christmas has multiple meanings depending on culture and place. Eleanor Jolliffe relects on the multifaceted nature of our end of year festival
There is something about the annual transformation of our cities from dark, grey and cold to a glittering, gaudy advert for electric lighting that has the ability to reawaken the spark of the magic of the season - no matter how awful the year. At this darkest point in the year there is something vaguely magical about the sparkle of the lights swaying above the streets, and the enthusiasm of communities to come together to watch someone everyone pretends to have heard of flick a light switch. Public space is well utilised in our cities in summer, but these shows of light create pockets of almost useable public space within our bleak midwinter.
These pockets quickly become colonised by a facsimile of central Europe. I am not of course speaking of anything more sinister than garden sheds tricked out as alpine chalets peddling central European treats, handmade crafts and overpriced artisanal food. By day their tacky charm is believable but by night when the vendors have gone home the swaying ‘icicles’ and two dimensional architectural features are almost sinister with the feeling of a long abandoned stage set. The cynical part of me wonders whether the bratwurst and gluvine will survive the next two years - will the staying power of this little celebration of central Europe that we all so joyfully partake in depend on how ‘hard’ our Brexit turns out to be? I can’t quite imagine German Christmas markets becoming say Cheshire Christmas Markets, or a ‘Taste of Festive Fife’.
The cynical part of me wonders whether the bratwurst and gluvine will survive the next two years - will the staying power of this little celebration of central Europe that we all so joyfully partake in depend on how ‘hard’ our Brexit turns out to be?
Whilst on the subject of questionable representations of architecture I can’t help but be delighted by the emails last month dropping into my inbox inviting me to join the annual architect’s gingerbread house competition. The Museum of Architecture suggests that “Taking a wander through the Gingerbread City is an unconventional way to inspire budding young architects and engineers”. I only hope they aren’t too disappointed when they arrive at university to find rather less ovens than expected; though perhaps crits could use the winning Bake-off formula? Who needs Revit when you have gingerbread?! The photos of last year’s accomplishments however were quite astonishing - definitely too good to eat!
As I’ve been thinking through all the most memorable and festive Christmas spaces to write this column I couldn’t help but think of the wonderful party spaces - both office and family; of the spectacular trees dotted in squares across London; of the one house down the road that always ends up more Christmas lights than house. Through it all though one square and one building kept reappearing- from a cold December night two years ago when I was in Israel/ Palestine researching my thesis and visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
It was an interesting journey through the West Bank, along the separation barrier and through several checkpoints. Fresh from a day considering the scars inflicted on the cities and landscape we arrived at the fractured building. Here different international denominations control different areas of the church, there was scaffolding was erected throughout for restoration work and throngs of people passing through to see the spot that tradition holds Jesus was born on. Exploring the church and its layers of history we paused in a rock cut back room in the candlelight- and for just a fleeting moment, before the conflict and chaos of the context broke back in there was peace as I have never felt it before or since.
Regardless of personal belief Christmas as we know it in the UK started there, maybe on that spot, maybe not. The lights and the buzz of our Christmas are a very different chaotic context to that one. Our conflicts this year have not been marked with barbed wire or guns but with ‘in’ or ‘out’; ‘right’ or ‘left’. For just a moment this Christmas I hope you all feel some of that peace - and that you go into 2017 determined to create moments in the world where that peace can be felt in the cities and buildings you help to shape.