The Country Life Christmas message by Revd Daniel French, the brilliant and quirky vicar with a penchant for dressing in Dalek costumes at village fêtes

We have a tendency to exhaust ourselves trying to create the perfect Christmas, but we should return to the charitable heart of the season and be mindful of those who are struggling, advocates the Revd Daniel A. French.

December months in Salcombe seldom hold snow, but nevertheless, silver hues and low suns hang over the harbour, the sparsely populated beaches marking out Nature’s quieting of the seasons.

Most yawls and yachts are back in boatyards, leaving the waters vacant for hardy surfers and persevering fishermen. Striking seascapes and close-knit communities make winter and especially Christmas in south Devon a glorious place to be.

A solitary habit of mine is to rise early with a giant mug of tea and sit in our sea facing verandah to say the Psalms. With good timing, I can catch the winter sun breaking the horizon.

Avoiding social media, opening emails, taking calls — before porridge and toast and even sorting out teenagers — this has to be the first duty of the day. If I forget or get distracted, then I generally feel out of kilter or overwhelmed with the subsequent pastoral duties and church busyness.

I commence my Matins ritual by repeating the Easter proclamation and responses: ‘Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed!’ This is my daily one-line bespoke sermon to myself.

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“It is a magical time, especially for little children, but it is also intense and demanding”

It is my standing joke with parishioners at Midnight Mass to wish them a Happy Easter from the high altar as part of the final benediction.

Tongue in cheek, before the sacred liturgy concludes with a rousing congregational Hark the Herald Angels Sing, I underline that we might all spice up our perfunctory greetings of ‘Merry Christ-mas’ with Easter acclamations.

Faith informs us that every day is Easter and all Holy Communions, even a Midnight Mass, proclaim the empty tomb as much if not more than the birth at Bethlehem.

There is a tendency to get exhausted slogging away manufacturing the perfect Christmas. Vicars and vicarage families can feel the same pressure as everyone else does.

It is a magical time, especially for little children, but it is also intense and demanding. With high expectations, clergy households can feel even more like a goldfish bowl during these weeks. For us, the antidote is to return to the spiritual and charitable heart of the season, especially being mindful of those who struggle.

Although Salcombe holds the reputation of a millionaires’ yachting playground, ‘Chelsea by the Sea’, there are a surprising number of families and individuals here who struggle on the gig economy, often dependent on food banks. Rolling up our sleeves with various initiatives, including, for example, a parish/Co-Op food share, are all ways to get a more balanced perspective.

“Back in the late 1980s, I was about to plunge into a career in computer science, but I soon discovered God had other, non-conventional plans”

As I get older, the quirkiness of the Gospel and what St Paul calls the foolishness of God are increasingly compelling. I find inspiring the noble tradition of holy fools who provoke and irritate as a way to get their message out. For me, St Francis of Assisi is the exemplification of a clown for God.

I caught those initial stirrings for a priestly vocation in my teenage years after studying his unusual life, together with his infamous willingness to abandon his inheritance for God. Back in the late 1980s, I was about to plunge into a career in computer science, but I soon discovered God had other, non-conventional plans.

Shy, nerdy and the last person to ever consider any public speaking, seminary training energised me to break my own conventions.

Suddenly, I found a voice. Nevertheless, I still get a buzz playing with gadgets and coding, although who cannot be progressively horrified at how addicted we have become to our screens?

“One dear parishioner, unaware that her vicar was the alien in disguise remarked tersely that: ‘It’s a shame that the vicar couldn’t be bothered to turn up to his own fête.’”

Those who know me soon grasp that jokes, comedy and leg pulling are a big part of me. Without warning, I may turn up to church in an outlandish costume or be spotted casually wandering around town as a film character, usually something sci-fi-ish.

Directors of the village pantomimes cast me as the village idiot, ogre or some other hunchback crank. It’s all good fun. My favourite ruse involved opening the church fête inside a fully automated Dalek with voice changer and smoke-charged weapon.

Unaware that her vicar was the alien in disguise, one dear parishioner remarked tersely that: ‘It’s a shame that the vicar couldn’t be bothered to turn up to his own fête.’

Our biggest service is Christingle, with pre-Covid attendances topping 500. Around the town, the anticipation for this huge gathering on the afternoon of Christmas Eve is electric. For visitors, it is the highlight of their winter break.

The weekend before, teams of volunteers spend hours making the hundreds of Christingles, giving the church a wonderful orange-charged aroma for the remaining days of Advent. Although the candlelit service is the same traditional format year in year out, the expectation is of a short, dramatic sermon, with lots of acting, tomfoolery and congregational engagement.

We’ve had everything from actors appearing from a Narnia wardrobe, as if by magic, to St Nicholas having a boxing match with Arius the heretic.

“Even the non-religious aspects of Christmas brood with nostalgia, a longing for a Dickensian Christmas where life was simpler”

Christmas services reveal the closeness of our rural and seaside communities in this parish. Critics may baulk that towns and villages such as this exist in a bygone sepia age, like an Ealing Comedy parody.

In an increasingly hectic world with impersonal megacities where financial survival is a manic commute from one thing to another, perhaps this quieter existence has something to be said for it. Having successfully taken up writing and podcasting since the lockdowns, I now, to my surprise, receive cri-de-coeur emails on a near-daily basis from those searching for something more than what is on offer.

On Boxing Day, my family will no doubt take a long dog walk around town and down to North Sands to clear the air and catch our breath. From the beach, you get the full view of the dramatic sandbar at the mouth of the harbour.

Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem Crossing the Bar immortalised it with its allusion to traversing this life to the next. ‘Sunset and evening star,/And one clear call for me!/And may there be no moaning of the bar,/When I put out to sea.’

Tennyson’s homecoming is not only an allusion to death (it tops the charts for funeral readings), but also a grieving for the loss of mystery and the spirituality within secular living. ‘I hope to see my Pilot face to face when I have cross’d the bar.’

He haunts us with the soulful possibility that we have lost connection with the Kingdom of God. Heaven is but a hair’s breadth away, yet, for all the dreamy benefits of the 21st century, we hold an unspoken grief because, somehow, that greater supernatural reality is beyond our grip. Could Christmas in our culture be a way to suspend our reason and re-enter a world of enchantment? Yet, to our frustration, for all the tinsel and trees, we cannot manufacture that spiritual depth and connection in the way our pre-modern ancestors so easily and effortlessly did.

The lyrics of carols seem paradoxically familiar, but also alien. Even the non-religious aspects of Christmas brood with nostalgia, a longing for a Dickensian Christmas where life was simpler. Perhaps for these reasons, Salcombe is unusually busy between Christmas and New Year. The hotels will be booked up, the restaurants buzzing and the shops bustling.

Above all that, the landscape speaks of a beautiful winter stillness that hints of Heaven. A greater story is being told, in Jesus Christ, God becomes one of us and beckons us to similarly find our humanity. ‘Peace on earth and mercy mild. God and sinners reconciled.’

The Revd Daniel A. French is the Vicar of Salcombe, Marlborough with South Huish in Devon. He has written for ‘The Spectator’ and co-hosts the ‘Irreverend’ and CatacombFM podcasts

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