A little, powerful thing happened this evening that I’m thinking about when I should really be in bed asleep.
My colleagues and I at Hat Fair are currently producing, for the first time, a new winter festival (called, appropriately enough, Woolly Hat Fair…). It’s taking the form of a Live Advent Calendar which is happening all around our city of Winchester. For 24 days, from 1st – 24th December, a different (real) door will open somewhere in the city at 5pm. And behind that door, something fun, magical, quirky, and / or artsy will happen for 30 minutes or thereabouts. A different event every day for the 24 days of Advent.
It’s a new venture for Hat Fair and a fairly mammoth coordination-cum-jigsaw project for a small team, which comes in addition to a usually full workload of organising our major annual festival of outdoor arts each July. But it allows us to extend our reach, to offer a different kind of site-specific work to the city, to engage with broader audiences differently and our community more meaningfully, and to transform our place for more than just 3 days a year. The entire project is being delivered for just a few thousand pounds, which we’ve raised from partnership funds from local bodies and from 16 local business sponsors. Which is brilliant. But it does also mean that every single thing is being done on an absolute shoestring. (Although we’ve still managed to ensure that every professional artist involved gets a modest fee of some description). There are a team of 8 of us actively delivering the festival, 5.5 of whom are volunteers and 1.5 of whom are part-time.
Despite those rather modest parameters, lots of the 24 Live Advent Calendar events are ambitious – trying to open up hidden corners of the city in creative, surprising ways; trying to encourage new audiences to engage with the arts in ways they may not have previously thought to; trying to extend the usual character and reach of our activity. That includes creating an audio soundscape of World War II oral history interviews to be experienced in an underground air raid bunker never accessed by the public since the war; conjuring up a mini immersive promenade theatre piece around a private domestic house inspired by the poem ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas; and curating an alternative exhibition of art from local people’s living room walls for display in a disused retail unit, accompanied by a similarly alternative selection of ‘audio guides’ comprising interviews with the art-owners.
However, also given those modest parameters, some of the 24 events are deliberately designed to be more easily achievable by a small, overstretched team working on an almost infeasibly tight budget. They’re designed to be playful, sure, and fully aligned with the project’s ethos and the nature of invitation it makes to audiences. But they’re also designed strategically to buy us a couple of easier days in a rather intense month.
Today’s event was meant to be one of those days. The event was a simple but, we hoped, playful and inviting one, which – despite its simplicity – was full of heart. We thought it would represent the whole community coming together as the city prepared itself for Christmas; we thought it would be bonding and spark connections; and we hoped it would allow the very special kind of magic that happens when of people of all ages and types and characters share a space together for a short amount of time to participate in a shared purpose. But that purpose was nothing grander than collectively decorating a bare Christmas tree in the centre of an Assembly Room while a choir sang carols. It didn’t require any artistic commissioning or much advance planning; it was an easily graspable and deliverable concept; it didn’t give us great cause for concern as to whether we could pull it off well enough. (Plenty of the other events do…!).
I suppose I had therefore assumed that tonight’s event would feel lovely, sure; great fun, certainly; and perhaps pretty festive and heart-warming. But I didn’t expect a moment which caught me entirely off-guard and made me feel foolish for – still, even though I love it and believe in it and facilitate it and proselytise about it constantly – underestimating the power and impact of simple, shared activity.
At the end of the event as most people had left and those of us still lingering were feeling all aglow with Christmassy fervour, I caught sight of a particular bauble on the gloriously chaotic, liberally-and-riotously-decorated tree. A couple of my colleagues had hosted a decoration table during the event where, instead of just picking up a trinket to hang on the tree, people could write names or Christmas messages onto tags, attach those to a bauble and then hang them on the tree.
The bauble that had caught my eye had a message written on its tag, in pencil and in a child’s hand-writing. It read: “Dear mummy, merry christmas. I love you and hope you’re ok up there.”
Other than weep a few quiet tears there wasn’t anything to say or do.
But what a reminder of the fact that even in the froth and bubble gum, in the lightness and jollity, there’s also always the chance for something else to be given voice, to be given air; some context for self-expression which might run deeper than we realise.
For the rest of this month I want to remember the value in the simpler, more humble events.