Let me ask you a question.
We’re in the twenty-first century and everything glows. LEDs are embedded in every electrical appliance; even with lights switched off at night, our bedrooms, lounges, kitchens and even our bathrooms are illuminated by a handful of shining eyes. If our rooms don’t already have a light fixture hanging from the ceiling–and most of them do–we install lamps and nightlights, anything to push back the darkness when we get out of bed to have a tinkle. Mobile phones, power strips, clocks–if we still have such devices, given how omnipresent digital read-outs are.
TV screens, monitors and laptops, all lambent in the darkness, LCD displays flickering at such speed we can’t tell they’re flickering at all. It’s only after hours in front of one watching movies or working spreadsheets we feel the flicker leaden at the backs of our eyes and feel relieved when we look away, glad not to stare at a screen for a change.
Lamp posts stand sentry on the pavement outside and every window is a yellow square, a lantern unto itself, letting the light from within shine into the night. A dozen houses, a dozen roads and soon they add up into a flashlight shining into the heavens; clouds reflect millions of urban lights turning the sky dimly orange with their pollution. We who were once reliant on starshine and the waxing, waning moon for our light now choke the sky of shadows. We who were once fearful of the dark no longer have reason to be afraid.
Given this triumph over nature–the inert state of the universe, no less: inky, infinite blackness–and that we wield all this power at the flick of a switch, perhaps you can tell me why we still light candles.
I’m not entirely sure how candles work. I have a glancing understanding of it–something to do with the tallow limiting the burning of the wick, slowly melting to allow the flame’s progression downward–but this is no more real of an understanding than a Sunday School understands how rainbows are made. Candle-making seemed to be one of those strange things that ran parallel to my young life–like Sports biscuits and arcade projection clay pigeon shooting–that disappeared at some point but were never really missed. At a loss to cheap places to visit on holiday we’d end up at some period craft village tethered to a stately manor, watching sweating, fastidious men dunk wicks into simmering vats of wax. If we were lucky we would then watch them sculpt the candle, cutting into the finished article to peel back the outside and reveal the differently coloured layers inside.
Such displays were tedious for a boy who just wanted to go home and play on his Spectrum, but then birthdays rolled around and candles were placed into holders, pushed into cakes, lit and blown out. The lights dimmed, the flames threw wild shadows onto the walls and made every child in attendance look a little more wicked, as if goblins had spirited the whole party away and left doppelgangers in its stead.
Autumnal bonfires were even better–crackling, sending sparks high to fade on drifting convection currents–and in summer and spring when the sun shone dazzlingly we reflected its rays from coins, prisms and watch faces, sending circles of light–Johnny Noddies, as we called them–skittering across the wall, the ceiling, the school stage during assembly.
We appreciated torches of course, and used them to send Morse signals from back garden to back garden across the estate. There’s something empowering about holding all those centuries of human ingenuity in the palm of your hand and being able to light the darkness no matter where you are . . . but it’s even more magical striking a match to do the exact same thing.
Because nobody ever burned their fingers on a flashlight. No one set fire to the settee with one or burned paper, or turned a can of Lynx body spray into a flamethrower. Flashlights were safe, and trustworthy right up until the moment the batteries ran out and the bulb went dark.
Matches, matches, never touch. They can hurt you very much.
Not that I was ever a firebug–me, the son of a fireman? Certainly not!–but while I knew well enough to leave matches alone, when it came to clutching sparklers or making a wish over a birthday cake I was in my element.
And then there was Christmas.
I don’t remember ever attending Midnight Mass. It’s quite possible it never happened: in spite of my mother’s Roman Catholic upbringing my sister and I were raised Church of England in the loosest possible terms. Yet I remember the sweet, acrid smell of burnt orange peel: lit Christingles held by choristers parading toward the altar, their smoke mingling with the scent of the silent night, holy night.
For the life of me I can’t recall why I’d remember this–or on what occasion I’d run into such a massing of Christingles–but I do.
Candles, synonymous with church and cathedral, are in my mind also synonymous with Christmas. Stacked in hives, each flame a prayer echoing on Christmas Eve; long, tapered and bookmarking the table centre on Christmas Day; at Gran and Grandad’s house on Dundonald Street on Boxing Day, their heat rising to spur a brass whirligig into action: a carousel about which capered cherubs and festive fools.
And on the tree, completing the circle, candles flickering at every point in the form of fairy-lights.
I remember when flashing lights were a luxury we’d only see once a year at my grandparents’ house. Visiting them was a second, lesser joy that fell after Dad had decorated our lounge and dining room. Their small, tinsel tree might have been artificial and ages old but it was wreathed in blinking lights and that made it special. Their front room–high-ceilinged, wide as a canyon–blinked with it as dusk fell, and it felt as if the dark and long ago Christmas my father had once celebrated–which hadn’t contained Transformers or adverts for Coca Cola but satsumas and string bags of brazil nuts–was very, very close.
Our own displays were once dense and glittery enough to put to shame even the tackiest of Santa’s grottos. Our lounge was a place where Father Christmas wouldn’t just stop to snack on mince pies and sherry but luxuriate, putting his boots up for a while before moving on, marvelling all the time at our lights.
After watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation my dad became besotted with fairy lights, and every year he constructed wilder, more extrevagent displays, to the point where the front of our home looked like a schizophrenic Lite Brite. In doing so he neglected the dining room, leaving it to be decorated only by my mum’s table centres and those threads from party poppers that hung from shelf and lampshade.
And Christmas changed. The Coca Cola trucks arrived to push the dark even further back, until one day there wasn’t any darkness left. With it went Christmas; what remains in its place is something I barely recognise.
Sometimes, when we have time to ourselves–or when we wish to make time for just the two of us–my wife lights candles. With so many light-switches about the house there’s no reason for her to do so, but she does, and when she does the world feels a different, better place.
Tiny stars, suns and moons lit, then cupped, then snuffed.
Light a candle this Christmas, and dream of wilder, better days.