They walk among us – thoughts on the Soho Christmas Lights

These are the words of Soho Resident and blogger behind the blogging site – God Bothering.

Last night I was in Soho watching a Christmas lights switch on by Soho Parish school, the local school. But these were not your average Christmas lights.

The lights in question were Christmassy artworks drawn by the school children and then turned into colourful neon light displays, which were hung up in windows all over Soho. We stood in the dark in Soho Square and counted down from ten, then the Lord Mayor of Westminster, Councillor Hamza Taouzzale,  and the Mini Mayor of Soho (age 12) hit a giant red button and the colourful lights sprang into life in the windows around us.

Sometimes I’ll be minding my own business, involved in something completely unreligious, when I’ll suddenly catch a glimpse of divine beauty that completely takes my breath away. This was one of those moments. And it relates to advent – the second meaning of advent – as I’ll try to explain.

What do you mean, kids in Soho?

The headteacher, Louise Ritchie, said that when she tells people she works in a school in Soho, the usual reaction is, “But surely there aren’t any kids in Soho!” When people think of Soho they think of restaurants, nightlife, films, music, adult entertainment.

Her reply is “Look up!”.

The ground floor of Soho is mostly occupied by businesses, but from the first floor up (as well as offices) are people’s homes. Roads like Old Compton Street and even Carnaby Street, which are synonymous with food and shopping in people’s minds, have residents. There are several high rise blocks of flats too. In all, about 3,000 people call Soho home.

While the tiny Soho Parish School pre-dates many of the surrounding buildings, it has been on it’s current site, in one form or another since 1872; newer buildings have grown up around it, and now even its playground is quasi-indoors, hemmed in every side. So. you won’t walk past and see or hear kids playing. The teachers regularly take the kids to local green spaces for their break times, but if you don’t happen to be around at those specific times – or notice the narrow understated school entrance on Great Windmill Street – you could indeed be forgiven for thinking there are no children in Soho.

Why all the kids have vanished?

There’s another reason why we don’t equate kids with Soho, or if you think about it, any city. Children have vanished from our public spaces everywhere. This reason was demonstrated perfectly last night when we gathered in Soho Square for the switch on.

We were told that a road closure hadn’t been organised, so please stick to the pavements. This is easier said than done, because the strip of pavement around the garden in the centre of the square is less than a metre wide. This otherwise beautiful square is laid with acres of tarmac, for vehicles to drive through or park on, leaving hardly any space for people to relax, stroll, or come together for community events. Anyway, people stood as closely as said excuse for a pavement as they could, but in reality most of us were standing in the road. So when a driver of an enormous parked car decided it was time to leave, he felt entitled to simply start moving, straight towards the families standing in his path. There were cries of anger and one dad put himself half on top of the bonnet to stop him, but the driver just kept going, and everyone had no choice but to get out of his way.

This is the pecking order in our city streets – cars first – and it’s another reason we don’t see children out and about much in places like Soho.

They’re gonna let it shine

And then the lights were turned on.

In the windows of the House of St Barnabas on the corner of the square, where we’d gathered beforehand in the cosy historic chapel, four artworks lit up. One was a colourful Christmassy ice cream; one was a portrait of the beloved school dog, Crawford, wearing a Christmas hat. All of them (there are 37 to seek out around Soho) are delightfully childlike and joyful.

It’s like the school children of Soho saying “Here we are!”

We can keep children behind closed doors and pretend that we live in a city for adults only, a city devoid of joy, but then – in the dark and the cold – their beautiful lights blink on, taking us by surprise.

Advent on the inside

The second type of advent, according to Celtic Christianity, is Christ’s coming within us. Don’t look for the kingdom or its king in the world around you, said Jesus. If people say he’s here! He’s over there! they’re wrong. If you see a powerful despot or glamorous leader or military ruler wowing or crushing people into submission, they have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God. This kingdom is quiet and virtually invisible. This kingdom, says Jesus, is within you.