Masque project in Portglenone – ‘the big switch on’ – by Carole Kane

I facilitated the Masque programme with the Portglenone Enterprise Group (PEG) over 8 sessions this autumn. We created a large communal painting, painted glass together, we worked on glass etching, but the main focus of the project was making lanterns for the local switching on of the Christmas Lights.

In the planning stages of our contribution to the Christmas event, participants explained to me that everyone in the town attends the switching on of the Christmas Lights, which includes a Santa transported by horse and cart through the town centre.

While I have lived in the village for some time, I’ve never attended the Christmas Lights Switch On although I have heard about the community spirit which accompanies the event. This year, given that I was leading the Community Arts Partnership project, given that my aim with the work was to make art in the community and make community through the arts, and given that we were producing material for the event, it seemed there was a natural route to take to experience the community spirit that I’d heard so much about. I must admit I had no idea of the size and scale of the proceedings.

PEG puts a lot of work into gaining funding for the tree, lights and expenses associated with the festivities. We hoped to contribute a new dimension, with the construction of glowing lanterns to decorate the stage. Included in the lantern designs, were stars of different shapes and sizes and an angel. PEG agreed that our lanterns could be the focus for our collective creative project. We hoped also that our lanterns would aid in illuminating proceedings, which would include a community choir which, like our lantern idea, was a new venture for PEG.

On the evening of the event, as is often the case in Portglenone, the sky was pitch black and the air crisp and cold. Core members of our Community Art group got to work, decorating the stage with our lanterns.  Once the stage was set, the crowd started to come together. Some of those gathered, agreed to join members of our artistic group and carry lanterns in a procession which would lead the way for the horse, cart and Santa. This small group made its way to the top of the town.

The police cordoned off the traffic and in the distance, we could hear bells and hooves. People around me were trying to see where the sound came from when into view came two beautifully harnessed Clydesdale horses with blinkers and feather mites. They were pulling a majestic red wagon, festooned with fairy lights. This was a far more impressive spectacle than I had expected.

Santa stood tall above the beautiful horses. One of his helpers rang a bell and that along with the sounds of the hooves, the clatter of the wagon’s wheels, the noise of the crowd, suggested, to me at least, a sense of going back in time, where the main street, now free of cars and shoppers, would have witnessed horse and cart as part and parcel of the market town’s proceedings.

The procession made its way through the town, meeting up with the large crowd at the staging area. The unbridled excitement of the children couldn’t help but enthuse everyone and Santa made his was to the stage where he was joined by a little boy with ginger hair and his mum; and together they pulled a ‘lever’ to switch on the lights of the Christmas tree.’Snow’ cascaded over the crowd. The evening continued with a craft fair and Santa’s Grotto was set up in the Wild Duck pub where children received their presents.

When we planned the Masque workshops for Portglenone, I’d never imagined that the event would be as exciting as it turned out to be. The sense of community spirit was tangible as everything came together, the stage, the choir, our lanterns, Santa in his magnificent wagon, the dark cold night and the excited youngsters anticipating Christmas.

Everything wove together into a wonderful experience, the timeless sentiment of which I’d like to think would enthuse the local community to maintain this tradition for years to come. I found the experience uplifting and a fitting end to a great community arts project.

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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.