Though the Christmas Market in the British town of Canterbury is a relative newcomer on the scene, you’d never guess it. Given the quaintness of this ancient cathedral town, with its narrow, cobbled alleys and crooked, half-timbered inns, festively decorated at this time of year with wreaths, bows, and holiday lights, it’s easy to imagine that the season has always been celebrated in style here. In fact, Christmas has been observed in this corner of England for some fifteen centuries, ever since the days of Saint Augustine, when Rome’s “apostle to the Saxons” was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 597.
For the past two weekends the throngs of shoppers, tourists, and students along High Street have been regaled by music as well. On one corner, a lone guitarist belted out covers of Pink Floyd and Cranberries hits; further up the street, live music throbbed from the open doors of a wine bar. On another corner, a group of high school students in Santa hats offered earnest renditions of traditional carols like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night,” interspersed with livelier tunes like “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
The singers, a group of students from Beech Grove Academy, the Bruderhof’s high school in England, were “busking” – a British term with no American equivalent. It refers to singing on street corners to raise money. Their beneficiary? Care4Calais, a local nonprofit that recently sent a representative to the school to speak about the plight of refugees in the French coastal town of that name.
In and around Calais, on any given night, hundreds of Africans and Middle-Easterners – many from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan – can be found sleeping under bridges, in hedgerows, abandoned houses, or doorways, waiting to sneak onto semi-trailers or commercial vans headed to England. According to Care4Calais, the makeshift camps of these men – many are actually teens – are often raided by police, who pepper-spray and beat them, take their sneakers, smash their cell phones, and sometimes herd them, during pre-dawn raids, onto buses that take them to unknown destinations. They are most probably taken away from the coast, or even across the border into Belgium. The migrants are also persecuted by locals, and even by members of Britain First, a white nationalist group whose leaders have crossed the Channel especially to harass them.
Care4Calais was formed to support these migrants, and its services have been vital since October 2016, when the French government destroyed the city’s so-called “Jungle,” a notoriously chaotic refugee camp which was home to an estimated seven thousand men, women, and children at the time.
Beech Grove Academy was inspired by the work of Care4Calais to raise money for blankets and winter clothing for these migrants. Because Canterbury does not allow street performers to advertise their cause (people have been known to claim that they are raising funds for Oxfam or Save the Children, only to keep the money for themselves), the buskers couldn’t openly say why they were singing. However, their sign – “Feel free to ask us who/what we are singing for!” – set off more than a few conversations.
Passersby reacted in a wide variety of ways. One, apparently forgetting that the origins of Christmas revolve around the birth of a Middle-Eastern refugee, complained that the money ought to be used for a British cause, and consigned the singers to the devil. Another, a restaurateur, listened to several songs from his front door, went inside, and later returned with two hot pizzas. Many joined in the singing, including children, old ladies, and cheery pub-crawlers. One even directed the choristers for several songs before gathering them in a football huddle for a lengthy pot-fueled prayer, and then blessing each one. Ding-dong merrily on high, indeed! All in all, the carolers raised a total of £400.