Christmas Eve in my parents house was not a time for presents, egg nog, extended family or any particular food item. It was the night before the event, not the event itself.
Our main tradition on Christmas Eve was to go to church. We’d grumble a little maybe, asking if we really needed to go, but really, it was the best service of the year. Unlike the Catholics, Christmas Eve service didn’t count for Sunday service. It wasn’t a Mass. It was an extra service. Special.
I grew up Orthodox Presbyterian. The Christmas Eve service was always very traditional. The pastor would tell the Christmas story. Maybe some kids would recite a few Bible verses. Maybe a small choir would sing. But mostly, the pastor would read from the Bible, say a few words, and then the rest of the service would be devoted to lighting candles and singing Christmas carols.
Last year I went to a Candle Lighting Service at a non-denominational church that met in a local elementary school. It’s basketball hoops and folding chairs instead of stained glass and wooden pews, but it should have been fine. We got through the early part and then the pastor explained that due to fire codes, we were not allowed to have real candles, so they would be handing out little flashlights.
I almost walked out right there. It’s not the pastor’s fault. He’s restricted by the rules of the landlord, and if the school says he can’t have 150 candles lit in the school gymnasium, let alone drip wax all over the floor, I guess that’s what you have to do. But it still sucked.
When I was a kid, we went to church in a real church. There was stained glass, and wood pews with hymnals and Bibles. Upon entering the sanctuary, we would each be handed a small white candle, no matter how old, with a little white piece of cardboard around the middle, which acted as a shield against any dripping wax. Kids carried these as if they were gifts to the baby Jesus. While the pastor talked we would run our fingernails against the candles, creating little curled shavings until we got scolded.
The pastor would talk for a little about thanks and love and the gift of everlasting life, then someone read the story from the chapter of Luke that went like something this:
Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes. Everyone went to his own town to be registered. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David. He went to be registered with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him, and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were absolutely terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people: Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a vast, heavenly army appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!”
Then the lights would lower and the elders of the church would come forward, lighting the candle of each person at the end of the pew, who would in turn light the candle of the person next to them, until the entire congregation had a lit candle under their faces. It was a beautiful sight. Each family, lit only by candlelight, children smiling, parents watchful. Then we would sing.
O Come All Ye Faithful
What Child is This?
Hark the Herald Angles Sing
O Holy Night
Joy to the World
We would be asked to end with the final song. It was always the same song. A song meant to be sung a cappella A song that still gives me chills.
When we were done, the pastor would give the benediction, and we would blow out our candles and quietly shuffle out of church, handing our candles in as we left.
The air would be crisp outside as we said goodbye to friends and crawled into our cars. But no one was ready to go straight home.
My father has always been someone who enjoys taking a drive. Sunday drives. Whatever. So we would drive around neighborhoods and look for the best Christmas light displays.
“Look at this one,” someone would say. “How about that one. I wonder how long that took them.” On any other night, this might have been boring, but on this most magical night, we were all enthralled and more than happy to ooh and awe.
There was nothing for us at home except waiting for the next morning, so both parents and children were more than happy to drag out the evening.
When we got home, it was time to get in pajamas, wrap any last minute gifts, and begin the process of putting all the presents under tree. Christmas music would be playing. Vinyl records. Frank Sinatra. Bing Crosby. Andy Williams. The lights would be twinkling and we would guess at our great bounty laying beneath the tree.
Slowly, one by one, according to age, we would be sent to bed to wait for Christmas morning.