I grew up in a small New England town with a charming Christmas Eve tradition. The whole town spills onto “God’s Acre”, the town green, each Christmas Eve to sing Christmas carols. It’s a tradition dating back to 1919, making this year the 100th anniversary.
Last Christmas Eve, at the urging of my son, we returned to God’s Acre to sing Christmas carols. My home church was established in 1733, and Christmas Eve has special meaning for us as a family. Steve and I were engaged on Christmas Eve, and married in the church that graces God’s Acre, a church whose website address is GodsAcre.org. A lithograph of the Christmas Eve carol sing hangs in my house; the kids had all heard of the carol sing tradition, yet none had ever experienced it firsthand.
The town’s tradition runs deeper than simply the carol sing; all the churches in town hold their Christmas Eve services around the carol sing. You go to church and then file out en masse to sing together. The town band dons Santa hats and leads the town in song.
As I packed up for this adventure east, I threw in a box of candle tapers. Mine had always been a sing-by-candlelight family, not a flashlight family. Having been away from the tradition for 30 years, I’d forgotten that the choices were no longer simply candlelight or flashlight. The iPhone was now omnipresent, but there were plenty of candlelight purists on the hill, creating a warm glow.
Singing by candlelight has a few challenges. First, you’ll want to avoid candlewax on your mittens, or coat. Second, lighting someone’s hair on fire is bad form. Ditto for lighting your song sheet. Third, protecting your candle from December wind gusts can be challenging. Of course, all of this is easily solved with a wind protector cup, a handy clear plastic cup with a whole in the bottom to slide the candle through. Which, naturally, I had not packed.
Our family of six circled up, protecting our candle flames with both our bodies and our song sheets, But with each breeze, a candle or two were extinguished. As the carol sing progressed, each of us relit our taper on another’s candle more than once.
The act of relighting a candle on Christmas Eve became a meditation for me. Trusting the circle around me to keep the flame lit, allowed me to share my flame with others. We collectively kept the fires burning.
Standing on God’s Acre, I remembered decades of carol sings, the way my friend Ree’s dad would always sing in harmony. I watched family circles expand as friends would join the circle, and looked at the glow of hundreds of faces, all singing, all working together to keep their candles lit.
Ree’s dad has been dead for over a decade. Most of my childhood friends have scattered around the world, and yet in this 100 year old tradition, my small hometown gathers each year to sing in Christmas, still holding out a candle for the next generation, remembering that our light burns as much for those around us as it does for us.