Mr. Twentieth Century says it is nothing but a cylinder of yellow wax from a beehive, molded around a string and decorated with a bright-colored paper frill. Mrs. Practical moans that hours of work are needed to make and trim each one. Miss Efficiency adds that it represents an out-of-date method of lighting and the church has an electric system that illuminates every corner of the auditorium easily and economically.
But who wants to listen to this utilitarian trio instead of taking part in the Christmas Eve Vigil? Plain, dull practicality is out-voiced in this colorful, joyous season. The inefficient, out-of-date, much-loved candle becomes the high point of the service.
Every child in the church eagerly watches the crack in the doors for the first flicker of light that means the lighted candles are ready to be brought in. “Behold a great, a heavenly light” we sing; and our eyes, too, are intent on catching the first glimpse of the glowing trays of candles.
The stirring music, the loveliness of the church decorations, the wonder of the Christmas story crowd away the hurry and worry of the outside world. As the sacristans carry in trays of lighted candles, we put a heart full of expression into our singing.
The twinkling candles pass swiftly from hand to hand across the long bench-rows, making little chains of light throughout the church. We are surrounded by the happiness of young and old, sharing with us the wonder of the Christmas Story.
Little flames dip and bend; drops of fragrant wax slip down and solidify on the gay ruffle. There is no practicality and no magic in the candle—how did it come to be an important part of our Christmas observance?
The first Christmas candles were given out at a Moravian children’s service on Christmas Eve, 1747. Christmas, to the members of the Moravian church, was a festival particularly for the children, a time when they could learn its story and what it meant to the world.
Bishop John de Watteville held the first service for the children at Marienborn Castle that year. As he told them the Christmas story, he reminded them of what Jesus had done for the love of them, and he had lighted candles, with red bands, distributed to help them remember that Jesus wanted to kindle a little flame in each believing heart.
The next year, a similar service was held in Herrnhut. The idea traveled wherever the Moravians went.
In 1756, the first such service in the New World was conducted by Bishop Peter Boehler for the children of Bethlehem. He showed the children a special painting of the nativity scene, gave a gift to each boy and girl, and then a lighted candle. They sang, “How brightly shines the Morning Star,” and the chapel was “ablaze” with 250 burning tapers.
When he dismissed them, the children carried their candles, still burning, to their quarters. This was a time when the threat of Indian attack was still very real and life was frugal in the pioneer town. Imagine what seeing 250 candles burning at one time much have been like? And having one’s own candle was a luxury for the children, too. It must have made the cold of the winter night and the restrictions of the time less severe.
For us, the candles have a different light—dim, shadowed, but meaningful. It makes us think of Christ, the Light of the World. We think of God’s Word, or the Church, or the Bible, as sending out rays of truth to dispel ignorance and sin as the candle flame challenges the shadows.
Churches have used candles for centuries, and beeswax to make them, because it was considered a symbol of purity. According to one writer, the wax represents the body of the Word become flesh, the wick stands for the soul; “both kindling into flame to manifest glory as of the only begotten Father.”
Whatever our interpretation, we pray our lives may reflect the heavenly light of which we sing, as the candles echo it. “Let our light so shine…” is our unspoken prayer.
Ask a child what the candle means. He’ll say it means Christmas. Whatever we may see in the candle glow, that little, impractical beeswax cylinder with its gay petticoat means Christmas to Moravian children. And all of us are children on Christmas Eve.
This article by Lee Shields Butterfield first appeared in the December 1959 issue of The Moravian. While 60 years have passed, this piece feels like it could have been written today.