It’s a favored holiday tradition for Unitarian Universalists. At the end of the annual Christmas Eve service, people stand waiting and expectant, each holding an unlit candle. Just as the first bars of “Silent Night” begin to sound, someone dims the sanctuary lights. And there, in the dark and in the hush, as people sing together in some way that still doesn’t break the sense of silence and stillness, a small flame gets passed around.
One by one, each candle tips toward its neighbor until the room — all its sharp edges softened by the surrounding darkness — becomes aglow with little circles of light, and the warm faces of both friends and strangers. It’s a moment of magic, in colleague Rev. Victoria Safford’s words.
Growing up, this candlelight celebration was my tradition, and a treasured marker of the holiday season. Even so, out of all my childhood Christmas Eves, there was one that stood out from the rest. We had just moved into the city, trading my first childhood Unitarian church for a larger, unfamiliar one. From my child’s perspective, this new church building felt like an incomprehensible maze of ramps, narrow corridors, doorways and staircases.
That year, no sooner had our candles been lit than we were off and moving. One long train of people of all ages, shuffling in the darkness with our flickering candles. Up and down the back stairs we paraded. Along the ramps, in and through corridors, we carried our small circles of light through the mystery of that dark building, ever solemn but still singing.
And even though the mantle of responsibility I carry now would probably never, in this era, let me authorize such an activity (what about falls? mobility issues? the threat of fire?), I have to admit there was something about that Christmas Eve I carry with me still. It was, I think, an initiation: an invitation to penetrate a world that until then had seemed to belong mostly to adults. With my small light and my wavering footsteps in the dark building I, too, took part in that dimension of the world where people, together, have the ability to make life both familiar and magical, all at the same time.
What will be the magic of this holiday season, when the way we gather now is colored by the ever-lit glow of our phones, tablets, and computer screens?
The funny thing is, even though I am not at all sure what the holidays will look like, I know that here, at the fellowship, it will be magic. Because the odd discovery of this year has been this: by getting pushed out of our building, we’ve stumbled into understanding that where the magic truly needs to happen is out here in the world, where we actually live.
And so, I am deeply inspired by all the ways that you are making unusual plans for December celebrations, not in the building but out in the community. Already — and here’s the miracle — I witness each of us tapping into the human capacity to adapt, to invent, to find ways to soften the darkness, out of whatever we have at hand.
This year, whatever your traditions, may you — we — and the wider world experience deeply needed moments of magic during this holiday season. And may it be that no matter where “here” is, we find ways to celebrate here, together.
In love and service,