On Tuesday evening the lights will go on in Clare Bennett’s front window and a carefully constructed snow scene will be revealed to her neighbours. “There have been endless discussions about the use of Sellotape and sticky-back plastic. It’s been quite a learning curve seeing what you need to make a window display,” she said. “You can get quite lost in these discussions.”
Bennett’s window will be number 15 in a living advent calendar. “We’re all really impressed with the quality of the ones so far, and there is a pressure not to let the side down,” she said.
Hers is just one of the many communities that are getting together to bring some light to a gloomy December.
The tradition of advent windows had been growing in the UK, but in 2020 it has taken off, with many projects evolving out of community social media groups set up in response to the pandemic, or as fundraisers in place of traditional Christmas fairs.
Cassie Martin, a teacher who lives in Cheltenham, unveiled her family’s advent window on 1 December.
“I work in Gloucester and I’d seen a street that does it there. Because our community has really been doing lots together during the crisis, I thought it would be a nice idea,” she said. “I put it on the community Facebook group, along with some pictures. I wasn’t sure if people would interested, but they really were. People have been so enthusiastic.”
In south London, Katie Carruthers took on window seven, with illustrations of Santa and Rudolph and presents in the Japanese kawaii – meaning cute – style.
She moved to the street a year ago, but joined the aid group set up in lockdown for residents who wanted to offer help to the community. “Someone on the group had the idea, inspired by the rainbows for the NHS, and to bring a bit of cheer after a rubbish year,” she said. “Loads of streets in our area are doing it.”
Other projects have been organised by school parent-teacher associations, which have had to cancel the usual fundraisers this term. Liz Adams, who organised the South Harringay school ADVENTure trail that Bennett is involved with, said the school in north London had lost about £1,200 over the term through missed bake sales, a disco and a winter event. The PTA is selling copies of a map of the windows for £3, but has offered the chance for people to make a larger donation. “The majority of people have added extra,” she said. “Our role is to make money for the school and build a community, and this does both of those things.”
In Lewes, Sussex, the PTA at Wallands community primary school has set up a “12 days of Christmas” trail, with windows and houses decorated from 12 December. Holly Aquilina, who has been crafting seven swans from willow, said the school normally had a big Christmas fair, and the town had missed its traditional Bonfire Night extravaganza. “It’s an outlet for everyone’s creativity,” she said. “The idea has gained momentum – we may be aglow.”
Andy Flannagan, a singer-songwriter, organised a trail in the High Town area of Luton for a community based around the local school and church. Last year they held face-to-face events, but this year they wanted some way to come together that would be safe. The windows have religious scenes and a message, and each day a Facebook page carries a passage from the Bible to reflect on. “We’re hoping people will take these mini-pilgrimages and the reflections,” said Flannagan.
Elsewhere, anything goes. “Everyone has done really different things so far. Ours was very trad,” said Martin, whose husband is a vicar. “We’ve got couples where the woman wants to do Scandi chic and the man wants inflatable snowmen – it’s been very funny.”
Adams said the only rule for their trail was “keep it celebratory”, adding: “A lot of the time, the kids have had the idea and then their parents have run with it.”
Carruthers said she did not feel too much pressure to compete with her new neighbours. “The first guy to do number 1 is a graphic designer and did the most amazing 3D carving of a stag in winter, so set the bar rather high. Since then it’s been a mixture of lovely ideas, some done by adults, some done by children – we don’t feel competitive here, but don’t want to let the side down by being rubbish after others making such an effort.”
Those who have taken part are thinking about making it a tradition.
“We’ve already talked about doing it bigger and better next year – with mulled wine/mince pies/carols etc on the doorstep of whichever house is doing that day – [something that was] not really possible this year,” said Carruthers.