Every year on the first Friday of December, our medium sized, end-of-commuter-belt, Epping Forest town has a spectacular tree festival in its parish church. Schools, charities, businesses and clubs sponsor a tree and decorate it with lights and thoughtful or 'business appropriate' decorations. From the horticultural society's 'vegetables in garden twine' to the local nursery's 'baby faces on a bauble' it's a popular community event which marks the start of Christmas festivities in the town.
It's great to see the same businesses and organisations each year. There's a sense of the cosy, safe and familiar about it all. But this year there's a new tree in town. And there's one bauble on it that's really got my attention.
It's a simple, child-sized hand print with the words, "I hope you do not feel scared today." [Hannah, aged 5]
The tree has been sponsored by the Epping Supporters of the Women and Children of Calais. An organisation which sprang out of the Syrian refugee crisis earlier this year. Three local working mums felt so moved by the plight of so many in Calais (although fundraising efforts have now gone beyond Calais to even more needy areas in Europe) that they defied considerable 'refugee fear' to unite many members of the community in efforts to help those in need. Specifically women and children.
The refugee crisis has been just one of a number of global crises this year which has encouraged debate. Drawing out at times the reasonable, the alternative and the ignorant or prejudiced opinions over 'them' and 'us'.
'Keep them out.'
'Close the borders.'
'Today's refugees. Tomorrow's terrorists.'
Just a few quotes from my Facebook feed over the past month.
Social media of course is a massive vehicle for this. You can quickly spot the friends who empathise with human beings in need versus the refugee phobic.
But why is it so polarising?
Is it not that the refugee phobic are actually just as scared as the three-year-old boy who has no home and little hope? Scared that there'll be a change in the status quo and that cosy life and traditions as they know it will be swept away. Just as they have for thousands of refugees? Scared of an alien way of life or culture they don't understand?
Add to the refugee crisis the Paris attacks and the new threat of war and there is a definite
smell of fear in the air. Just enough to insight a decent amount of racial discrimination dressed up as old fashioned jingoism.
Are you scared?
Isn't that what it's all about? Fear. Dress it up as wanting to protect your family, racism, snobbery or disinterest but at it's heart it's always fear.
As a white mum to two white/black african children, I'm particularly sensitive to times like this. I get scared. I'm a mum. I want to protect my kids.
My husband, a British-born Black African, is no stranger to racist attitudes. He's grown up with it and is pretty tired of explaining it to people who don't believe racism exists anymore. But as a mother who has experienced first hand, deeply hurtful racism, today's politics puts me into defensive lioness mode. I want to know how I can teach my children to cope and respond to these attitudes without getting angry or tired of explaining.
At the start of the festive season, when we want to be merry and sparkly (ironically for the refugee-phobic our Christmas holiday season is founded on the story of a couple, who a few thousand years ago were forced from their home with nothing but their bags, a donkey and an impending arrival) a little honesty from a five-year-old metaphorically smacked the simple answer to all of this in my face. That simple hope, "I hope you do not feel scared today" is my Christmas wish too.
We all have a specific take on the world based on our experiences and upbringing. We can't change that but we can change our reaction to situations or news stories. We can recognise when we're making a judgement based our opinions rather than facts. We can consider all sides of the story.
If you're scared. Admit it. If you don't understand. Ask a question. Just as a child would do.
'What's it like for you?'
Closing ranks won't solve the world's problems but opening our minds and considering all sides might be a good start.
So as you gaze at your cosy, sparkly tree this year - perhaps with its familiar decorations - ask yourself 'what am I scared of?'
I hope you don't feel scared today.
(Picture blogger's own)