‘Twas the weekend before Christmas as 62 students from 32 countries all over the world came together at Cumberland Lodge for the 69th annual Commonwealth and International Student Christmas conference. The lodge’s longest-standing tradition is also one of its best-loved ones, and the air was filled with excitement and anticipation.
For those of us lucky enough to attend, the weekend was an opportunity to celebrate the approaching holidays in beautiful surroundings and great company, or to learn more about British Christmas traditions, including a quiz night, carol singing and, of course, the Christmas crackers.
More importantly, it was also a chance to reflect on some of the most pressing social issues in and beyond the UK. This year, the conversation centered around the role that art can have in supporting the betterment of the society.
First, John Martin from Pan Intercultural Arts told us how the organisation deploys different forms of art to reach into and empower communities in London and abroad, including in Brazil during the recent Olympic Games. After that, we had a chance to hear from Streetwise Opera, a charity using music to promote social inclusion and help people escape homelessness.
After an animated debate, students headed for a walk in the foggy but eerily beautiful Great Park, followed by some much-needed hot drinks and a beautiful carol service in the Royal Chapel. Soon, it was time for the traditional – and very delicious – Christmas dinner. And, of course, the evening would not have been complete without a visit from Santa Claus himself, bringing presents to everyone – evidently, we had all been very nice during the year!
After dinner, it was time to celebrate not only Christmas but also the many talents of those present with performances that included storytelling, music, dance, poetry and the spoken word. Many students chose to share traditional music and songs from their home countries. The evening then continued with a spontaneous sing-along, with participants belting out pop songs and holiday classics such as All I Want for Christmas is You.
During the breakfast on Sunday, I asked people sitting next to me what had been their favourite thing about the weekend and received the answer I expected: oh, everything! But while it proved difficult to choose just one highlight of a weekend packed with exciting and stimulating activities, we could all agree that what had made it extra special was the company.
As for me, I can only hope that I get a chance to return to Cumberland Lodge for another International Student Christmas – perhaps even this year, when the beautiful tradition celebrates its 70th anniversary. Is it too early to start writing a letter to Santa in January?