A Quaker Christmas Story: Candles in the Window
This Quaker Christmas story takes place in the village of Settle, Yorkshire, England – 12th Month, 1814. In those days, candles in the window were not a peaceful sight . . . .
Part I: The View from Castleberg
Abram Woodhouse was late, and he knew it. But even so, as the daylight faded he climbed the path up Castleberg hill on the north edge of Settle.
Castleberg Hill, Settle
From the hilltop, on a bright clear day, he could see all the way from Settle southwest to Pendle Hill, where George Fox had his vision of a great people to be gathered. To the westward rose the whitewashed limestone crags of Pen-y-Ghent. Today he wanted to look down and see the village all lit up.
But the sun was down and a cold winter fog was rolling in dark and low over the slopes of the Yorkshire Dales. By the time Abram reached the top, huffing and puffing, snow had begun to fall, and about all he could see were the tops of some leafless trees and the mist made by his rapid breathing.
He stopped for a moment to catch his breath. Looking north, he couldn’t see the sheep he knew were out there on the rock-strewn hillsides, huddling against the cold under their thick, matted coats of fleece. Peering over the rocky ledge down toward the village, he thought he could make out a faint flicker here and there, but it could have been just his imagination.
[NOTE: This story is fiction. But the village of Settle, and Settle Friends Meeting, are very real, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. The wars referred to here were also, alas, very real.]
Too bad, he thought. He had hoped to see Settle sparkling in the dark like the queen’s necklace on a black velvet cushion, with candles in practically all of its windows. Every window, that is, but the ones in the Woodhouse bakery and pastry shop, and at their house on Lancaster Street.
The Bakery! The thought reminded Abram he was late. He snatched up his pie basket and scrambled quickly down the path, back to the village and a long evening’s work.
Christmas Eve, so called by the world’s people, was always a frantically busy time at the bakery. While the Woodhouse family, being Quakers, did not observe Christmas as a special day, almost all their customers did. That meant orders for dozens more pies than usual, plus hundreds of tarts and ginger cakes, and scores of extra loaves of their rich, thick bread.
So all the week before, the whole Woodhouse family were in the shop almost round the clock, mixing dough, sprinkling sugar and cinnamon, spooning out the cherry preserves, and tending the fire under the big brick ovens.
Abram did all of this, and more: he was often sent out with a basket full of pies or tarts for delivery to the better customers: beef and mincemeat pies to old Tilbury at the Golden Lion Pub beyond the square; or down the cobbles of South Street, through the narrow passage of the Ginnett and past the sturdy old Meetinghouse, with scones for the Blackburns and buns for the widow Kilburn. Sometimes he crossed the river Ribble to Giggleswick, where the village vicar doted on Mother’s ginger cakes.
This evening he had been sent to the pub, where Tilbury wanted three more pies for his last round of customers, and it was from there that he had turned to climb the hill.
Part II: War – A Fine Thing to Pray For?
Abram wouldn’t have thought of climbing Castleberg, especially in the cold, except for the candles–two in a window in every house and shop.
“What are they for, this time?” he had asked Father that morning.
“It’s a double illumination,” Father said, “for victories past and victories prayed for. George Cockburn’s troops burning Washington town in the rebel States is the victory past, and Wellington beating Napoleon before the end of 1815 is what they’re praying for.”
“That’s a fine thing to pray for, in what’s supposed to be a Christian country” his grandmother had snorted.
Laying down her rolling pin, Gran had wiped sweat from her brow. “All it means is more dead soldiers, penniless widows and hungry orphans, from Paris to New York. Love thine enemies, indeed. A terrible, sinful waste.”
She sighed and picked up her rolling pin. With swift, expert strokes she flattened a thick lump of dough into delicate pie crusts.
“In Philadelphia,” she went on, hefting the rolling pin for emphasis, “there were dozens of pitiful beggars, one-legged and one-eyed. All left over from their glorious revolution, twenty-five years later. Saw ’em with my own eyes, y’know.”
She shook her head. “No need for it, I say. War is a sin, I say. And not just I, but the blessed–“
The bell over the door had tinkled just then, and Mrs. Lamb entered, seeking some bread. Gran had stopped in mid-sentence at its jingle. This was Quaker talk, and not for customers’ ears, especially not this year.
But such talk had always interested Abram; and he never tired of hearing about Gran’s travels in the ministry to America. It seemed as if she had seen everything there, from William Penn’s great Quaker city to the terrible slavemarkets of Baltimore and Richmond. And she had gone there all alone, back in 1805.
To be sure, a woman traveling all that way unaccompanied had been somewhat irregular, even for Friends. But when Sarah Haygarth, who was to go with her, came down with smallpox a week before their ship sailed, Gran told the elders straight out that she still felt called to go. They had given her a traveling certificate, she insisted, and she was not going to return it until it had the signatures of Friends in America on it.
And that had been that. Gran was not someone to be trifled with. Not then, and not now.
In fact, it was Gran’s gruffness which was about to come in very handy for Abram. Hurrying around a corner of the square, he ran smack into a larger boy running the other direction, looking back as he came.
Abram, his broadbrimmed hat and his basket all went sprawling. The larger boy recoiled, then seemed to recognize Abram. “Bloody Quaker!” he shouted, and kicked Abram as he tried to regain his footing. “Cowards, all of you! Bet you’d like to see Napoleon and Andy Jackson killing British soldiers, wouldn’t ya?”
Abram dodged the next kick and managed to get up. “Who’s thee?” he asked, backing away. “What does thee want?”
“I want all traitors and Quakers out of England!” the boy cried. He threw a rock at Abram, which missed. “Go to Philadelphia, or someplace where your sort is welcome. We hate cowards and traitors, and we hate you!”
The boy raised his fists and stepped menacingly toward Abram, who was backed up against the wall of a house.
There’s no place to run, he thought, so I may as well stand my ground. “Who’s thee calling a coward?” he said, and raised his fists.
Part III: “All Your Windows Broken Tonight!”
But then a hooded figure carrying a long stick loomed around the corner. “Here, now, what’s this?” a voice said curtly.
Abram recognized Gran’s commanding, husky tones. But the other boy, eyeing her staff cautiously, edged away from him, right up under a window in which two candles were burning. In their glow Abram got a good look at him: curly red hair and a freckled face, with one front tooth missing. His chin was wrapped in a gray muffler; his coat was ragged and patched.
“Go along now,” Gran commanded him. She tapped her staff significantly on the stone walk.
The boy turned and ran. “Bloody Quakers!” he spat again over his shoulder. “All your windows will be broken tonight! You’ll see!”
Gran watched him disappear around a corner, and then said, more quietly, “Is thee hurt, lad?”
Abram shook his head, and picked up his basket and hat. He was a little ashamed that she had discovered him preparing to fight. One leg ached where it had been kicked. But it would get better.
“Well, then,” Gran said, “let’s get on to ‘shop now. Thy father was worryin’ about thee.”
Abram limped a little as they walked through the square and he explained about his detour up the hill. Gran understood that; Castleberg was one of her favorite places too. But Abram was bothered by the boy’s words. “Gran,” he said anxiously, “hadn’t we better tell Father, so he can get the shutters closed? We don’t want anymore broken windows.”
Gran nodded. “We’ll tell him,” she said. “But I’ve a feeling we may be a bit too late.”
And so they were. At the shop, Father was sweeping up shards of glass from the walk in front. Behind him, inside the shop, mother and his sister Sarah were brushing off the display shelf.
No one seemed very upset. Abram was not much surprised either; after all, they were used to it, in a way. The nights of illumination were called to celebrate British battle victories. If your window didn’t have a candle in it on such nights, you risked having it broken by ragamuffins.
Even so, the elders of Settle Meeting had made it clear: the Quaker Peace Testimony forbade joining in illuminations or any other celebrations of carnal warfare, come what may. And the Woodhouse family kept to the testimony as best they could.
“Did thee see who did it?” Abram asked.
“Caught a glimpse of him running off,” Father said. “Redheaded lad. Ragged. No one I knew.”
Of course, thought Abram. The boy who kicked me! Anger flashed over him. Next time I see him, he told himself grimly, I will thrash him good, Peace Testimony or no.
Mother was shaking her head at Gran. “Well,” she said, “I expect it’s a good thing we’ve a standing order with Cobbold’s glaziers. They’ll be here day after tomorrow with a new window. I think we Friends have been keeping Cobbold in business through this war.”
“How many does this make?” Gran asked. “Five times, or is it six?”
“Six,” Father answered through the empty window frame. “It’s been a long war.” He clumped the big shutters closed over the opening and came through the door to bolt them from inside. “We’ll just have to leave them shut til Barney Cobbold gets here.” He surveyed the shop and his family. “I think that’s about cleaned up,” he said. “So we better get back to work, eh?”
Mother nodded, and put away the brooms. Then she and Sarah returned to their tarts. Abram was sent to bring in a big sack of flour, then feed the fire and stoke it with air from the bellows, to be ready for Gran’s next batch of pies. Well-stoked, the oven fire kept them all warm despite the broken window.
Coming back from the wood bin with another armload of logs, he heard Gran whispering to Mother. “Did thee notice, Martha, there was a black bow on the candles in Margaret Newhouse’s window? It must be her boy Jack. He was off to New Orleans with the Yorkshire dragoons.”
Mother shook her head. “The poor lad.” she murmured. “God have mercy on his soul.”
“And hers, too,” Gran added, more loudly. “What’ll she do now, I wonder, with four other children and her husband gone too?” Then more softly, almost to herself, she said, “another one for my pie list, I reckon.”
Abram added the logs to the fire, and pumped the bellows. Then he wrapped up some orders for delivery that night. The vicar was laying in a double batch of ginger cakes, to get him through the holiday. Abram put the parcel on the counter by the back door, next to a stack of pies.
The pile of goodies made him feel envious of the lavish worldly celebrations of which they were to be part. Candy, gifts, parties, bright decorations–he had seen all these, if only for moments at a time, when making his deliveries.
Part IV: Gran’s Nighttime Mystery Journeys
Of course, the holiday would not go completely unnoticed by the Woodhouse family. The shop would be closed–there was no business that day anyway–and they always had a big dinner, with special desserts.
Then father would read the Nativity story from his big old Bible, wire spectacles balanced shakily on his nose. But that would be about all. “For Friends,” Gran had explained to him and his sister long ago, “Christ lives within, y’know, and Christmas should be every day.”
Abram could see her point, but he still yearned for some of the gaiety and gifts other households had. For that matter, it seemed that Gran herself did not keep entirely to this stern plain testimony. For each year since he had been old enough to work in the shop, Abram had noticed her preparing special parcels of pies and tarts and bread, which she set aside from the other orders.
And when he awoke on Christmas morning, she was always gone, never appearing until almost dinnertime, then coming in red-faced from the chill. She never explained where she had been; but next day at the shop, the special parcels would be gone.
Staring at the stack of well-wrapped pies, Abram suddenly understood where Gran had been all those Christmas mornings: Her parcels must be meant for some of the poor families of Settle. And as soon as he realized this, he felt a strong urge, almost a need, to join her on her rounds tomorrow. He turned toward her, bent over a counter flecked with flour.
Listening to his whispered request, Gran looked up thoughtfully from the dough she was kneading. “If thee really wants to, Abram, thee may come,” she said quietly. “But think about it awhile before thee decides. I start well before dawn, and thee needn’t spoil thy rest on a quiet morning. Tell me before thee turns in tonight.”
Abram nodded, but he already knew what he would say. If he had to get up early, he would just go to bed sooner, that’s all.
It did not turn out to be quite that simple, though. The Woodhouse home was built of solid stone, and all its windows were covered by strong shutters, pulled tight against rocks and bricks on nights of illumination. Even so, Abram was jerked awake twice by the sound of bottles crashing against the outer wall, accompanied by muffled curses.
After the second time, he lay awake, blinking in the darkness, for a long time. He remembered the redheaded boy, wondered if it was him, and felt again his anger at the attacks. He wasn’t sure, when he heard Gran’s subdued knock at his door, whether he had been back to sleep at all.
She saw him yawning, and whispered, “Thee still needn’t come. Stay and go back to bed.”
He shook his head, and shrugged his way into his warmest clothes.
Heavily muffled, they slipped out into the darkness of Lancaster Street, each carrying a large basket laden with their treasure. Gran led the way, and even using her walking staff, she seemed to glide down the streets, sure-footed, as if hardly touching the ground. Abram, more than half a century younger, was hard-pressed to keep up with her.
The work was simple enough. On High Street Gran stopped at a doorway, and leaned a parcel against it at an angle, so it would stay put. She worked as silently as a thief. Around the next corner, another doorway.
By the time they had worked their way to Tilbury Close, around the corner from the shop, their baskets were almost empty. Producing a key from her heavy skirts, Gran let them into the bakery, where in the dim glow from the banked coals beneath the oven Abram could make out another stack of parcels beside the door.
As they loaded up, Abram whispered a question that had been nagging at his mind: “Gran, how does thee know where to go?”
She shrugged, and whispered back. “Women know,” she said. “The Women’s Meeting keeps track. We hear things in the shop. And,” she paused significantly, “I just remember which windows have black ribbons. Come along now.” She pulled the door shut behind them.
There were some windows where candles still burned, flickering in low misshapen stumps of wax, but mostly Settle was dark. As they crossed the empty square, with its row of shops in the Shambles, Abram glanced up and saw that the sky had cleared. He could make out a sprinkle of stars between the dark shapes of the buildings.
They were headed up the steep side streets beyond the square now, where the houses were smaller and becoming shabby. It seemed that Gran was laying parcels more often here, and soon their baskets were almost empty again. Then she stopped by an alley, and gestured to Abram.
“Here,” she said, handing him a big parcel, “thee can take this one. Past the third house on the left there’s a gate, and a tiny cottage set back a few yards. Step quietly now.”
Abram eagerly took the parcel, and she followed him down the alley. He found the gate, but stumbled on a cobblestone as he reached for it. The gate creaked as he pushed it back. He couldn’t see the cottage at first, then spotted a glow. Moving toward it, he tripped over a milkpail and almost lost his balance as the metal rolled and clattered.
Frightened at the noise, Abram straightened up and took a few more paces toward the cottage. He was almost at the door, stooping to lay the parcel, when it was jerked open abruptly.
“Who’s there?” a frightened voice demanded. A figure stood in the doorway holding a lantern in one hand and a club raised in the other.
Part V: The Ribbon On The Candle
At the rush of light and sound, Abram stumbled backward, and tripped again over the milk pail, which had rolled up behind him. Losing his balance, he flailed his arms out to keep from falling, flinging away his heavy parcel. The figure in the doorway, equally startled, reflexively dropped the club and caught the package one-handed.
Thoroughly rattled now, Abram rolled to his feet and darted to the gate. There he glanced back toward the cottage, then started to run again–right into Gran’s muffled form.
She caught hold of him and held him a moment, until he got over his panic. As he clung to her he suddenly realized she was stifling giggles.
“My heavens, lad,” she said, “don’t thee remember what the Saviour said? ‘When thou givest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand is doing.’ I’m afraid thee needs some practice in that, Abram. Come along now.”
Back out of the alley, Gran turned away from the village, up the steep street again, then plunged suddenly through a low gate onto what Abram knew was the path up the side of Castleberg. “Is there someone up here too?” he whispered, but she shook her head and kept climbing. She knew this path as well as the rest of the town, even in the dark, and kept ahead of him despite her age.
At the crest of the hill she stepped to the ledge where the village lay visible below. The predawn air was clear now. Settle’s few remaining lights blinked up at them, and a glimmer wavered on the slow current of the Ribble.
The night sky was a much more impressive display, moonless and glittering with stars from horizon to horizon. The slope of Pen y Ghent was a distant silhouette. Behind him Abram heard the faint baaing of sheep, somewhere on the dales. It was cold up here, but beautiful. He realized that he had hardly felt the cold til now.
Gran broke into his thoughts. “Did thee recognize anyone at the cottage, Abram?” she asked.
He thought back. It all happened so fast. But wait–in the lamplight, just for a split-second, he thought he had seen a face–he drew in his breath sharply. “Gran!” he exclaimed. “It was the boy who kicked me. His hair, his tooth–they were the same.”
He felt rather than saw her nod. “Aye,” she said, “and he recognized thee, too. But what about the cottage, now? Did thee notice anything about it, lad?”
He thought back again. There hadn’t been much light until the door opened, just a glow from–from what?
Then he knew: “Candles,” he said. “In the window.”
“Aye,” she said again. “And did thee see what was on the candlestick?”
He frowned in thought, then shook his head.
“A black ribbon,” she said quietly. “It’s his father. Killed in Flanders two months ago.”
He considered this in silence, watching his breath turn into mist and starting to shiver, until Gran said, “We’d best get back. There’s still a dozen more stops to make yet. The war has been long, lad, and in the world’s eyes Christmas is short. Though I think thee knows better.”
He followed her quietly down the path, through the empty streets and across the square, toward the shuttered shop. The candles will be burning again tonight, Abram thought, and the redheaded lad might be out too, looking to throw his rocks.
But perhaps not. Abram realized that his anger at the boy was gone. If he met him again, he wouldn’t feel a need to fight. And he could hope that, if the lad had recognized him at the cottage, maybe some of his anger would begin to cool, too. Maybe they could have peace on earth, at least between the two of them, here in Settle, at least for now.
The elders of Settle Meeting wouldn’t let him put a candle in the window even for that small victory, he thought. But when the tapers were lit at home for dinner, he would remember. That would be his Quaker illumination for this Christmas.
It might not be much as the world measured such things. But it would do.
Postscript: In 2020, Madison, Wisconsin Friends Meeting produced a live drama version of this story, and sent us the following review:
Chuck and Nancy (Pickering),Thank you for Candles in the Window, the story and (Nancy’s) script. When the Madison First Day School children presented the play on Zoom this past Sunday, it was received with joy by the Meeting.I believe Friends were surprised and grateful during this time, when we so hunger to lift our spirits, to receive such a poignant message from our children. I’ll confess that I was surprised at the sincerity with which the children embodied the story. Rehearsals were pretty rough and I had my doubts, but young Friends (with their parents’ help no doubt) studied their scripts and acquitted themselves beautifully in performance. The actors for Abram (Elias Watson) and Gran (Piper Hirsh, Sally’s granddaughter) affected credible British lilts, probably thanks to having seen more than one Harry Potter movie. The narrator (Uly Brelsford) read with quiet, convincing expression, even overcoming giggles whenthe sound effects man (Reece Dixson-Kruijf) played a resounding recording of shattering glass.At the close, we in the audience turned on our video (the Zoom version of bringing up the house lights) with warm applause, grateful smiles all around and more than one face bearing signs of tears.We adapted the . . . script to Zoom, moving nonverbal stage business into the voice of the narrator. Costumes were simple: hats and bonnets. There were sound effects at various points to emphasize the action. Scene changes were signs held up and read by the stagehand. The youngest children made pictures of candles in windows and held them up at various points as they were led.
We asked the audience to mute themselves and take themselves off video, which sent them into the background and brought the actors forward into the first screen. The actors were in ‘gallery view’, each being highlighted when they spoke. The resulting performance was convincing.
Again, thank you for this wonderful story, calling us to stay true to Friends’ testimonies of simplicity, integrity and peace, especially when the world around us is riven with strife and fear. My favorite scenes are when Abram, then Gran and Abram, climb the dales into the peace of the emerging night, the hubbub and strife of human enterprise receding below them.If you have occasion to come this way when the pandemic lifts, please let us know in advance. We would love to host you and introduce you to the children of Madison Meeting. Perhaps you may even tell them a story.
Love and Light,
Madison Friends Meeting
Previous Quaker Holiday Stories:
#1 A Hospice for Hope
**A Quaker Holiday Story Extra: Beethoven In the Basement
If you enjoyed this story, please share it with others. This story is
part of a collection of nineteen Quaker short stories, Posies for Peg, which is available on Amazon and Kindle. It makes a fine gift.
Copyright © Chuck Fager