Silent Night, Holy Night
The lights go down and a further hush blankets the sanctuary.
The lighting of the candles begins with just one candle, somewhere at the front of the church. We scramble to find ours, stuffed between hymnals, on the floor beneath piles of winter coats, stuffed in holiday purses.
I learned at a young age to tip my unlit candle into the flame of another, then to hold my burning candle straight and steady while the someone next to me dipped into it.
When all the candles are lit, the entire church aglow with flickering flames and their reflections, the organist’s introduction retards and it’s time. Time to sing Silent Night by candlelight on Christmas Eve.
My favorite holiday moment, my most precious holiday memories. Dozens of holy nights, most of them right here in this small Lutheran church in small town America, my hometown, the one I return to for as many Christmases as I can.
From childhood to my own children, past to present, old chapters to new.
As a girl, I stared at my candle, mesmerized by the flame, fearful of the wax that could drip, no guarantee that it would be caught by the cardboard ringing the little white candle. I listened to my mother’s beautiful singing voice, rising above all others near me, carrying those around her who were hesitant, unsure. As the years went on, my voice reached for hers and, finally, we could look into each other’s eyes, brimming with a single tear, and hear our voices ring out together.
And my dad’s voice, deep, seeming to rise from his boots, special because I only got to hear him sing in church twice a year. His favorite Christmas hymn, we all knew, was O Holy Night, but he liked this one, too. This occasion was just as special for him as it was for the rest of us. Every year, after the first verse, he’d switch to humming. He could have read the words in the program, but no, he preferred to just hum. My siblings and I always giggled beneath him.
He’s gone now. Gone for 23 years. Divorced and moved far, far away from any of us. There are other deep voices now–little boys grown up, new husbands and male significant others–but no one hums as my dad did when I was a little girl.
Once I became a mom, I was busy teaching my children how to light their candles, how to hold them, to be careful. My youngest held her first candle when she was not quite two. I had my video camera that year and wanted to capture the moment for forever, so I arranged, in advance, for my mother-in-law, who was there with us that time, to watch Amy closely while I stepped out of the pew to film my entire family. Through the viewfinder, I watched as Amy slowly pulled the flame toward her lip, sure that my mother-in-law would stop it in time, remind her to hold the candle upright, away from her or anyone else’s body. But that’s not how it happened; instead, a loud shriek cut through the silent night, holy night, and trailed off as my mother-in-law rushed her out of the sanctuary and into the narthex, me chasing after her, the video not turning out quite as I had hoped it would. For years, I was transfixed with my children’s faces, as they stared at their lit candles in wonder, another generation focusing on not dropping the candles, not letting the wax burn their little hands, not putting the flame to their lips.
On this particular Christmas Eve, I am blessed to be holding one of the newest additions to our family, my grand-nephew, Owen Daniel, four months old. He had been with his dad for most of the service, but Matthew handed him to me just before the lighting of the candles. Afterward, I thanked him for sharing his son, for letting me hold him during this special moment. “Sure,” he said. “I wanted to give him to someone I could trust, with the candles and all.” Apparently he hasn’t heard the story of Amy Claire.
I move outside my pew, against the wall of the church, perpendicular to all those I love. I turn Owen outward so he can gaze at the candlelight. As an adult now, with nearly grown children, my wonder is not on the candles or even the glory of the voices around me. Instead, I focus on each family member, one at a time, and marvel at them and their contribution to this family, this family that keeps coming together, year after year, one Christmas to the next. Four generations now taking up nearly four pews.
In front of me is my mom, the matriarch of the bunch, and her man Jackson, a permanent fixture in our family. They hold their candles with their outside hands, their inside ones clutched together in the folds of my mom’s winter dress coat. Next to her, my nephew, a grown man, just married. He has his arm around my mom, his grandma. I watch as he whispers something into her ear. Later, she tells me what he said. “If it weren’t for your spirituality and you teaching confirmation class, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
Up and down the pews–my sister, her husband, their grown children, now with spouses and children of their own, my brother, his wife, their boys who are nearly the same ages as my girls. And Jim, my Jim.
Missing, this year, are my daughters. They are visiting their father over Christmas. My focus eventually lands on this baby boy in my arms and lingers until the final words–Jesus Lord at Thy birth. A brand new baby. Another generation. His first Christmas. I am the one to hold him during this most holy of moments on his first Christmas. A whole life ahead of him. A life with this family, this family of God, this group of incredibly loving, welcoming, wonderful people.
As my teary eyes reflect the candlelight around me, I think, too, of my own babies. They are clearly missing from our group, both of them possessing a vitality crucial to the second-to-youngest generation here, the generation of young adults, the next bunch to leave home, venture into the world, and return, at least for Christmases, perhaps for good.
My oldest is off to college next year, my youngest to France for her year abroad. The candlelight spills from my eyes as I miss her already not being here with us in this church next Christmas Eve, not being with us at all for the entire holiday season.
If my oldest–the singer, the artist, the free spirit–were here this eve, she would stand beside me and we’d sing together just as my mother and I once did.
I wipe the candlelight from my cheeks, catching it on my fingers before it falls on Owen’s bald baby head. Sad tears for feeling the void here in our family pews. But mostly happy tears. For the joy of Christmas, the joy of my loved ones, and the bundle of joy wrapped up in my arms.
The final words are sung, the organ fades away, but remaining here in the silence of this holy night is love, peace, faith, hope, and the candlelight, dancing in my tears.