Jenessa Williams visits David Shearing's "structure of calm in the heart of the hectic city centre"
When you hear the word Christmas, what springs to mind? Presents, trees, time off work and a free pass to call a cheeseboard with a side of Quality Streets a balanced breakfast.
Of course, that’s the commercial side of the festive season. Christmas also means family, religious celebration and an opportunity for reflection on another year past. In the quest for the perfect secret santa gift and the dread of sharing a Turkey with your tory-voting inlaws, we often forget to make time for ourselves in the run up to the holidays.
Having created a wooden haven in the middle of Leeds bustling train station, David Spearing’s ‘Christmas With Us’ is something of an anti-grotto – a chance to experience something more than a piece of plastic and a sit upon Santa’s knee. Don some headphones, sip a warm drink and listen to the stories of Christmas past from a collection of Leeds residents, ranging from the happy to the sad to the downright resilient.
“It can be a really problematic time of year – things don’t always work out in that picture-perfect way the way people plan out”
“It can be a really problematic time of year – things don’t always work out in that picture-perfect way the way people plan out” explains David. “Just like with the Weather Café and our ongoing Incredible Things project, this is our way of saying ‘it’s okay’. Everything we aim to do with these projects is to recognize that it’s okay to feel the way that you are feeling and more importantly, to give space to that feeling.”
Having talked to over fifty members of the Leeds community within Kirkgate Market and through the Heyday community group at West Yorkshire Playhouse, David and his team have collected a huge selection of anecdotes to listen to both within and outside the installation box. We hear from those facing their first Christmas without a loved one, those who can remember treasured frugal gifts of blackboards and mars bars and those who choose not to celebrate at all.
Despite the peace and warmth of the comforting pine scented air, it's a highly emotional and humbling experience. A woman sat beside me is wiping quiet tears from her smiling eyes as she watches the home video projections on the wall, and a voice remarkably similar to that of my beloved, belated grandmother, fills me with a feeling of comfort that I didn’t know I was missing. As our host Tase discreetly serves winter-spiced tea and stollen, I find myself fighting a very specific urge to call everybody I love that I’m thinking of them, and perhaps more importantly, to quit worrying about the superficial – I’m headed towards a Christmas spent with my loved ones, and what else matters besides that?
“Being in the train station has really facilitated that as something of an intervention – this big box that people have to question and which disrupts their natural process of their day,” says David
“It’s not just about giving things for free, it’s an offer of time as a currency – how long do we have to spend in order to think about ourselves and others? Some people stay five minutes, others well over an hour. I think it would have been easy to deck it out in tinsel and fairly lights but it’s meant to be humble – it’s essentially our way of showing that it’s the inside that counts and that it’s got that theatricality of having to step inside into another world.”
A structure of calm in the heart of the hectic city centre, Christmas With Us allows the stress of commercialization to melt away, if only for a short time. While the installations days are counting down, its lesson remains clear – don’t sweat the small stuff, and focus on presence over presents. A Very Merry Christmas indeed.