Here is an array of candles, lit during worship at Chapel Hill Friends meeting in North Carolina, on the night called Christmas Eve, 2017.
I first took part in such a ceremony at State College Friends meeting in Pennsylvania. The event was quite simple; it began after dusk, with the meeting room unlit except for a single candle on a large table, covered with highly reflective aluminum foil.
Out of the silence, as moved, Friends came to the table in ones or twos or family groups, and each lit another candle, which they placed on the table; they spoke if moved, then sat again in the silence.
From the first time I experienced it, the way the whole room was progressively illuminated, seemed in fact to glow, as the number of flickering flames increased, was very moving to me.
In a way it was a visible, wordless, yet eloquent evocation of Quakerism at its best: a motley, seemingly haphazard collection of candles of witness, more diverse than we outwardly seem, mainly anonymous and individual, somehow joining together to become more than the sum of the parts.
This time, at the end of 2017, a year which for me has been very heavily shadowed, often deeply gloomy, and yes, dark, the full array became something of an encouraging signal for the year ahead. (Let’s hope!)
At State College Meeting, we were told that this custom had originated in Berlin, shortly after the end of World War Two, when the city was still devastated in the wake of bombing and and combat. I pass on the story we were told below, knowing it mainly as an oral tradition:
How the Christmas Candlelight Meeting Began
Berlin in 1945 was a devastated city, bombs had destroyed most of the homes and buildings and things were in terrible disarray – children without parents and homes, shortage of food and shelter — all of the terrible consequences that accompany war.
Ilse and Gerhardt were a Quaker couple with three small children who suffered terrible hardships during the war — she (a school teacher) because she defied the authorities ‘speaking truth’ and Gerhardt because he had a Jewish father.
They were homeless and spent many months searching for shelter for their family. While doing so, they were willing to have other homeless orphans join them simply out of compassion, but with the knowledge that with each additional child, there would be less to share among their own family.
They eventually found a bombed-out building that gave them some shelter from the cold winter days and nights. The children slept in Army blankets in the clothes that they wore during the day. Taking turns, Ilse and Gerhardt would search for food to feed the always-hungry children that grew daily in numbers.
Once in returning with a loaf of bread, a hungry soldier asked Ilse for a piece. With reluctance, she shared the bread, only to find upon returning to the children that a Quaker care package had arrived with nuts, dried fruit and chocolates.
On Christmas Eve, Ilse and Gerhardt felt terribly sad about having so little to share with their extended family, but they were determined to make the Eve of Christmas a joyful event for themselves and their children. It was then when they and the Berlin Quaker Meeting conceived of the idea of a candlelight service as we now know it.
By that time, the meeting had been assigned space in a mansion that had been confiscated during the war. Their large room had little furniture and, have course, no Christmas tree. However, nearby was a stand of fir trees and from these, they cut branches and carpeted the floor with green cuttings. They had a good supply of candles and gave one to each child.
They began the meeting for worship with a single candle illuminating the darkness of the winter night. One by one, after lighting the candle from each other, the children gave the best and only present that they could — they shared their talents that God had given them.
One little girl had just learned to whistle and tried her best at ‘Joy to the World’. An older child had composed a poem thanking Isle and Gerhardt for their compassion. Many shared memories of their own families, making everyone a bit sad and happy at the same time.
As more children lit their candles, Ilse said the room was turned into a carpet of light (licht teppich in German). After everyone shared their talents, they sang the wonderful Christmas songs that we still sing about God’s gift to us and the hope of Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward everyone.
That sharing became a tradition in the Berlin Quaker meeting that continues today. Years later, an American family visiting Berlin experienced it while living in Berlin and also introduced it to the Live Oak Friends Meeting in Houston, TX. It has migrated to some other meetings from there.