Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Muddling Through, Bil Lepp’s hilarious (and insightful) book on parenting.
When I was a kid my family always went to church on Christmas Eve out of reverence to the season. When I was a teenager we went for reverence but also because my dad had become a pastor. We go now with my family because it seems the right thing to do with the kids on Christmas Eve. The two things that mean the most to me in any Christmas Eve service are singing “Silent Night” and the little candle each person receives as they enter the service. Every Christmas Eve service I have ever attended, no matter the location or the denomination, I have received a white, four- or five-inch candle with a little paper disk to keep melted wax from dripping on your hand. The candles are handed out so that the parishioners can light them, one person passing the light to the next in a symbolic act of spreading the word of Christ into the world, as we all sing “Silent Night.” And that little candle is an integral part of my whole Christmas experience.
I don’t know when it started, but I know why it started. That candle was, and always has been, my central diversion during the long, dark, Christmas Eve service. When I was a kid I needed something to do in the sanctuary to ease my boredom during church services. During regular church services I would draw on the bulletins, but I couldn’t draw during the Christmas Eve service because it was always dark. Thus the candle became my refuge—but not in some metaphorical “light the candle against the darkness” kind of way, or even in some theological “Jesus is the light of the world” sense.
As soon as I was nestled safely in the pew I would strip the paper shield off the candle and then grasp the candle as tight as I could in my hand. Throughout the service, through all the hymns, through all the prayers, through all the up and downs, through the long, slow drudgery of the sermon, I would hold that candle in the tightest grip I could muster.
The goal of the activity was to warm the wax of the candle so much with my body heat that I could bend the candle, mold it, twist it, reshape it into some glorious new form. But each year, it seemed, I gave in too soon. “Try it now,” a little voice would call in my head. “Try it now. It’s been long enough.” And so fifteen minutes into the service I would try and bend the candle, and sixteen minutes into the service I would have a broken candle. Then I would squeeze the two halves in my hand trying to create enough heat to melt them back together. By the time we got around to singing “Silent Night” my candle would be a series of wax chunks held tenuously together by the wick, looking far more like a cheap, broken, fake pearl necklace than a candle. And then I would have to wait anxiously a whole ‘nother year to try it again. Oh, the agony! Each year trying to stifle the voice and hold out one more minute—one more minute.
I know that somewhere in every church there is a box of white candles, some broken, sitting on the shelf of a storeroom. I know that I could go into any church, any day of the year, grab a handful of candles, and sit in my living room, watching TV and squeezing candles until they are soft enough to bend. But this act of reshaping the candles has no meaning, and no place, outside of the Christmas Eve service. It is an act of transformation that has meaning only within the structure of the Christmas Eve service. Outside of the service there would simply be no reason to squeeze a candle until I could bend it. It might even seem silly outside of the Christmas Eve service. Eight thousand, seven hundred and fifty-nine hours out of the year I can look at little white candles and never think twice about subjecting them to the tortures and ministrations of holding and twisting them into new forms, but as soon as I start to get dressed for the Christmas Eve service, my anticipation starts to grow.
And now I have children. In whispered conversations, so their mother doesn’t hear, I say, “You only get one candle, you only get one chance a year. It’s not about success, it’s about the act itself.”
“What are you three talking about?” my wife asks.
“Nothing,” I lie. “A Christmas surprise.”
And then back to the children, “The goal, for me, is to make a circle out of the candle, but I’ve never achieved that goal. So, the real goal is to keep on trying to accomplish the goal.”
“Are you talking about bending candles?” my wife asks.
“Nope,” the three of us all say very unsuspiciously.
“We’re not going to the Christmas Eve service to play with candles,” she explains to the children. And me. “We’re going to celebrate the birth of Jesus.”
She grew up Baptist; she’s been conditioned to believe church is just about God and Jesus.
I wink at the kids.
With barely concealed desire I reach for my candle when we arrive at the church. I lick my lips as the kid manning the box hands over a candle. I try not to snatch it. The kids get theirs. I examine mine to make sure there are no cracks or faults. It must be perfect. I grip it in my hand even before we are settled. The kids have theirs held tightly, too. I can feel my body heat transferring to the cold wax.
I have an advantage over the kids because I’m an adult, thus my hand is bigger. I can heat up a larger section of the candle. And, I’ve been doing this for nearly forty years. I have the patience that comes from experience. Fifteen minutes into the service the voice starts, “Try it now. Try it now.” “No,” I shout silently back at the voice. “Not this year! This the year I hold out!”
But something strange is happening in the service. The lights are off, as usual, and the greens are hung, and the acolytes have lit other candles all around the church, but something is wrong. There’s a tension in the church. And then I see it. One set of greens, actual boughs from a pine tree, real pine needles that have been hanging in the church for a month, drying out in the heat, are way too close to one of the big Christmas candles. Everybody sees it, but nobody is going to do a thing about it. It’s too good a diversion. Everybody is asking themselves the same question, “Will the candle burn down fast enough, or will it set the church on fire?”
By the time we get to the sermon, it’s pretty clear the greens aren’t going to catch fire. The mood of the congregation has gone flat. Deflated. My children are each trying to melt the broken halves of their candles back together. I’ve managed to hold out. “A few more minutes,” I tell myself. “You’re an adult. You can hold out a little longer.”
Now, this particular church’s sound system has an odd quirk. For reasons beyond my ken, the system will sometimes, and quite randomly, pick up bits of conversations being broadcast by truckers on their CBs as they pass by the church on the nearby highway. And the truckers do not always use church sanctioned language.
So as the preacher intoned, “On this most holy of nights, when Joseph and Mary made their way by donkey…”
And then a trucker broke in, “Big Billy? D’you see that Mustang go by?”
“Ten-four, Outlaw Pete. I saw it. That dude was really flying, and there was a hot lil’ mamma in the passenger seat.”
The preacher, a bit befuddled, paused to make sure the truckers were done. “The three wise men saw a star in the East…”
“Big Billy? Outlaw Pete? This is Hamhock. I see a Smokey’s lights up ahead. I think your Mustang mighta got pulled over.”
Even the preacher chuckled at that. He told the sound man to switch off the PA system before we heard anymore.
The best part about it was that it had kept my mind off the candle in my hand. The service was winding down. I’d almost made it. My children watched with awe as I began to slowly, ever so slowly, bend my candle. It was going to happen! I was going to—snap. I sighed out loud. Loud enough that people would have looked at me, except that at that very moment, the candle under the dried pine branch hanging in the window rallied, sending out a long lick of flame that lit the greens above the window. It was as though the candle in the window had waited until everyone had forgotten about it—moved on to other things—before it lit the greens. There was a mad flurry of activity as people rushed to put the fire out.
I was concentrated on the candle in my hand. I’d bent it so far that there was no way I was going to be able to repair it unless I could somehow straighten it out. Snap. The kids chuckled.
The pastor got the congregation back in the pews. The smell of burned pine filled the room. There was smoke hanging near the ceiling. But we hadn’t sung “Silent Night.” And it ain’t Christmas ‘til you sing “Silent Night.”
The passing of the light started up front. I held the biggest chunk of my shattered candle that I could grasp. The lady next to me scowled as she passed the light of Christ to my broken candle. I lit my son’s, he lit his sister’s. And then my wife held up her candle to take the light from my daughter. Our eyes went wide in wonder. A perfect circle. My wife had done the impossible. She had patiently bent her candle into a perfect circle.
But then we all know it is the patience and tenderness of a mother that is often the most transformative force in the world—even if she is a Baptist.