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Durham NHS staff to light Durham Cathedral’s iconic Christmas tree

26 November 2020

A doctor and a nurse from University Hospital of North Durham will switch on the lights to Durham Cathedral’s 25ft Norwegian Spruce. 

Tara Watkiss and Dawn Kempson, A & E Doctor and Junior Sister respectively, were entrusted with the honour in recognition of their life-saving work on the frontline during the Coronavirus pandemic. The pair will light the tree on behalf of their NHS colleagues across the country at the special online service on Sunday 13 December, 3.30pm. Please note the public will not be able to attend this service in person, but will be able to live-stream it on the cathedral’s Facebook page. 

Dawn works as a Clinical Lead Nurse and Junior Sister on Ward 3 at UHND; a complex frailty unit, specialising in treating acutely unwell and often confused older adults. Dawn’s 20 years of nursing experience was put into practice when she was redeployed to an acute coronavirus ward, helping staff who were trained in plastic surgery and orthopaedics to rapidly develop their respiratory knowledge and develop the expertise needed to meet the specific needs of Covid patients. 

Dawn said: “Nursing the people affected by the first wave of coronavirus is something that will stay with me always. We quickly worked out that this was unlike any condition we had ever come across, with each person needing a huge amount of nursing, medical, rehabilitative and spiritual care. The lengths we went to reduce suffering were immense, and I recall often sitting by a dying patient's bed long after my shift had ended. I wanted to be able to tell families that my patients didn't die alone, that I had been there and that I had tried to help if they felt scared.

“As we nurse the second wave of this awful disease, please know that we are doing our best.  We are down, but we are not out and I am delighted to have been asked to help showcase and reflect on the work we’ve done, at this wonderful time of year at the cathedral service.”

Tara was one of the many healthcare workers who caught Covid herself while treating sick patients. She continues to care for patients during the winter months, working in the Cardiology unit at UNHD. She said: “Covid has been an awful ordeal for the whole world, lots of families have lost loved ones, but a quote that really rings true to me is that 'the world came together as people stayed apart’.  I have seen more of a sense of unity and community than ever before and it is a privilege to be invited to light the cathedral tree to signal hope for new beginnings.”

Each year the Christmas tree is kindly supplied by Langley Moor firm, Ward Brothers, and for 2020 will be installed with the help of Tyne & Wear Access. 
The service will also see the Crib blessed with holy water at the font by Clergy as well as festive carols from Durham Cathedral Choir. Durham Cathedral’s unique crib scene was hand carved by retired miner Michael Doyle between 1975 and 1976 and has been positioned in the church over Advent ever since. In a nod to the regions rich mining history, the traditional nativity figures are replaced by mining figures, including a pit pony instead of a donkey and the innkeeper dressed as a miner.

Canon Michael Hampel, Vice-Dean and Precentor at Durham Cathedral said: “The lighting of the tree and blessing of the Crib is a pivotal moment in our Christmas celebration as we bring together the sacred and the secular – the Crib pointing to Christ as the Light of the World and the tree signaling joy and good cheer. This year it felt right to honour the true heroes of 2020 who have gone above and beyond the call of duty to protect us all. We hope you can join with us virtually to pay tribute to the remarkable NHS workers up and down the country at this special service.”

Those who would usually leave gifts under the tree over the festive period are instead encouraged to donate to the Salvation Army’s Christmas Toy Appeal online between 7-12 December. Find more information at: