Our homes are our private sanctuaries where we can retreat from the world. So what is it like when it also needs to be an open and welcoming space for the community, especially at Christmas? It’s all about finding a balance, says Claire Loh, whose husband is a vicar. By Jessica Jonzen
CLAIRE AND TOM LOH AT HOME WITH THEIR CHILDREN (FROM LEFT TO RIGHT): STEVIE, 4, OSCAR, 8, AND TABITHA, 5. IMAGE: CLAIRE LOH
With its glowing Christmas tree, garlands of greenery hung cheerfully in every room, the chatter of guests and joyous shrieks of excitable children, the home of Claire and Tom Loh brims over with the festive spirit. “Christmas embodies everything that we love,” says Claire. “It’s a jovial and magical festival in the middle of winter but it’s also celebrating community and caring for each other. It’s a lovely time for us.”
It’s also extremely busy; if you think you’re busy in December, imagine being a vicar – or their spouse, for that matter. Claire’s husband, Tom, is the vicar at St Michael’s and All Angels Church in Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex, where he has grown the congregation from only 40 on a Sunday to 120, with 60 children, since they arrived in 2014. Christmas inevitably means a month of special services, parties, visits, and help for those in need – all on top of the demands of the day-to-day running of the church and family life.
THE 1920’S VICARAGE HAS ORIGINAL PARQUET FLOORING. LAYERS OF OLD WALLPAPER WAS REPLACED WITH A CALM NEUTRAL SCHEME OF FARROW & BALL’S SHADED WHITE, WITH DOWN PIPE ON THE CHIMNEY BREAST. IMAGE: CLAIRE LOH
Claire and Tom live in the vicarage next door to the church with their three children – Oscar, eight, Tabitha, five and four-year-old Stevie. The house and the community was very much part of the decision when they decided that Tom would take on the roll – his first parish after six years of training. “The house comes with the job so you’re looking at the whole picture when considering the post,” says Claire.
Having grown up near the sea in the sunshine of Santa Barbara, California, Claire was delighted to be back near the water by the Thames Estuary after three years inland in Billericay. “I really loved it here and felt immediately comfortable.”
While the five-bedroom 1920’s vicarage had beautiful parquet floors and plenty of space for the Loh’s growing family (Stevie was born soon after they moved in), it was in need of some love and attention. “Vicarages aren’t owned by the people who live in them, and they’re not lived in by the people who rent them out so they’re often not at market standard when you move in,” says Claire.
We’re conscious of the fact that we have people coming round who are struggling to make ends meet and we want everyone who walks into this space to feel comfortable and that they’re meant to be here.”
There are also interesting idiosyncrasies to consider. “They were traditionally built so there would be enough room for the bishop to stay if he ever needs a room on his journey between churches, but I doubt that would ever actually happen!” Claire laughs. For that reason, the couple took a gamble and decided to convert the small box bedroom into another bathroom. The electrics needed to be chased into the walls, precipitating the removal of layers of wallpaper. Claire chose a fresh, neutral palette of Farrow & Ball greys throughout the house and changed the carpets. “As we’ll be here for the foreseeable future, those felt like good decisions to make the house feel like ours and for it to work for our family,” says Claire.
But there was another important factor involved in their decisions about decorating. “We’re conscious of the fact that we have people coming round who are struggling to make ends meet and we want everyone who walks into this space to feel comfortable and that they’re meant to be here,” says Claire. “If it was our own house and we were completely left to our own devices, we would have been tempted to have done the kitchen a long time ago but I think it’s about getting the balance right. We want it to feel as though it’s our own space but also one that is accessible to a wide mixture of people.”
IMAGES: (TOP) THE FORMAL DINING ROOM WAS CONVERTED INTO A PLAYROOM AND IS PAINTED IN LAMP ROOM GRAY BY FARROW & BALL. (BOTTOM LEFT) CHRISTMAS IS A SPECIAL TIME FOR THE LOH FAMILY (BOTTOM RIGHT) STEVIE, TABITHA AND CHILDREN FROM THE CONGREGATION AT THE RECENT CHRISTINGLE SERVICE. IMAGES: CLAIRE LOH
Tom’s study is kept at the front of the house near the hallway for meetings with parishioners in need. “The children see different sides to the community – we have people who will come to the vicarage for help and they might be in a difficult situation – be mentally ill or even be struggling with substance abuse. It’s not always this way but we had one morning where everyone was lined up ready to walk out of the door for school and there was a man who really needed help and he was on the doorstep talking to Tom. Eventually Tom took him to the church garden for a cup of tea and gave him some time but there are different sides of life that they’ll see and it does precipitate conversations,” says Claire. “We tell them that everyone needs help at some point and that for some people it’s a lot more visible and quite urgent, and they do see this literally on their doorstep.”
As their home is a space which is a welcoming place for the community, Claire is careful to balance it with private family time. “There are spaces where you can retreat in the house that aren’t just up for grabs for anyone who comes in, and we keep upstairs as a private space. There are days where we have children hanging off the chandeliers and it’s fun but I have to always keep an eye on the pace of it,” says Claire. “There are times when we need to allow them to have the whole house to themselves. They understand that if they bring special toys downstairs then they’re going to have to share!”
There are days where we have children hanging off the chandeliers and it’s fun but I have to always keep an eye on the pace of it. There are times when we need to allow them to have the whole house to themselves.”
Claire and Tom’s children probably understand better than most about the message of sharing and giving, especially at Christmas. “They’re naturally used to sharing as they have to share their parents, and especially Tom, with everyone. On a Sunday in church, Tom doesn’t sit with us and they are aware that a lot of people will need his time after the service. They are aware that they are sharing him and we try and make time and have days in other ways,” says Claire. “At Christmas, we also balance the joy and fun with the message about community and giving so it’s not just reduced to the material element. Every year, we support Operation Christmas Child and they put together a box of toys and essentials for a child of their own age and they really love that.”
This Christmas Eve will be spent at the crib service “which gets more like a panto every year!” says Claire. After drinks and canapes back at the house, Tom will head back to church for Midnight Mass. On Christmas morning, Tom is back to work once the stockings have been opened and the family will join him for the service later that morning. “If we’re going to my parents-in-law in Hampshire, we’ll be in the car by 1pm to get there for 3.30pm so it’s always a rush. We often save the presents for Boxing Day, when we can relax and stay in our pyjamas, it’s busy but it’s such a privilege. None of this could happen without the support of our community – they’re what make this place home.”
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