It’s that magical time, late Christmas Eve. The family is all home, the gifts are sparkling under the tree and the Christmas lights shine colourfully from green boughs. My sisters and I curl up in our favourite spots on the sofa – our nightgowns on and teeth brushed.
For most kids, this is when imaginations whirl with the possibilities of what tomorrow, Christmas day, will bring – new toys, books and games, and enough sugar to make our teeth ache.
My sisters and I are giddy with the excitement of it all, yet our minds are drawn quickly to my father’s voice as he begins to read us a story. My mother’s fingers move softly across the piano keys, and we’re taken to a different world.
The real meaning of Christmas
This scene is one very familiar to me. It’s the same setting I’ve found myself in almost every Christmas Eve, whether seven-years-old or 27-years-old.
While my parents bought us Christmas presents each year – and Santa usually left behind "evidence" of his visit Christmas morning – my parents wanted to make sure our budding hearts and minds knew exactly what Christmas was really all about.
One day, as my dad was reading through a Christmas edition of a magazine for music directors, he came across a Christmas candlelight drama. Originally intended as an activity for a church service, he realised it could be a wonderful tradition to start in our own home.
I remember feeling a mixture of curiosity and reluctance the first time he announced we would be holding a Christmas Eve family devotions. I was used to our typical Christmas Eve ritual of going to church and then coming home to prepare a plate of cookies and milk for Santa. But devotions? Hadn’t we already put in our "God-time" at church?
However, as my dad searched for matches and we three girls carried out our assigned task of scavenging for all the candles in the house we could find, it was clear that something special was about to happen.
The story comes alive
Once my sisters and I had gathered the candles, my dad told us to pick the ones that best represented the Biblical characters of the Nativity. We chose pink for Mary, blue for Joseph, white for the angels, green for the shepherds, brown for the wise men and a small, cream-coloured candle for the baby Jesus.
When we were all seated and the candles arranged before us, my father began reading a narrative of Jesus’ birth. As each Biblical character was introduced in the story, he would have us light their candle. Interspersed in the story were Christmas songs and hymns fitting to that section of the story. My mother played softly on the piano as we sang along in the dark, our faces becoming increasingly illuminated by the glowing light of the candles.
Enthralled by the story coming alive before our eyes, my sisters and I listened intently as my father described the joy and wonder of our Saviour’s birth. We heard with our ears how far the wise men travelled to see this tiny baby; we saw with our eyes the burning glow of light as the angels of the Lord appeared with songs of joy; and we sang with new understanding the cherished songs of Christmas. Most real of all was seeing our parents’ faces filled with awe and reverence as they told us a story they already knew by heart.
A light that never goes out
As the Christmas story neared its end, my father described how the wise men returned to their own country, and he blew out their candles. Next, the shepherds went back to work and the angels returned to heaven; we blew out their candles one by one. And finally, my father read how Mary and Joseph eventually came to the end of their earthly lives. Their candles were blown out as well, leaving only Jesus’ burning light.
As we sat in the now almost completely darkened room, my father read in a hushed voice: "But the Light that began in Bethlehem was life. And this life, Jesus Christ, was the Light of all humanity. The light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out. And it all began on a silent, holy night . . . long ago . . ."
A tradition of hope
Each Christmas Eve since I was a small child, we’ve held this ceremony in our home. And after each candle is blown out, no matter how old we are, we still linger in silence, watching the light of Jesus burn brightly on. It’s always the smallest candle of all – perhaps even the most humble – yet in a roomful of darkness, its glow is powerful. And full of hope.
Now that I’m older, I understand the symbolism better. It is comforting to be reminded that though this world seems dark, and though our earthly lives will be snuffed out someday, Jesus’ light will remain as strong and steady as ever. The darkness will never consume it.
I will always regard this tradition with deep reverence, as well as appreciation for my parents’ creativity and desire to intentionally teach us the real meaning of Christmas. When we were small, I’m sure we sometimes squirmed; or, as teens, felt impatience at having already heard the story. But there has never been a time when we didn’t end up sitting together in silent wonder, appreciation or thoughtfulness, watching that single candle burn on.
Pass on the story
Perhaps you, too, have a desire to teach your children that Christmas is a time to remember Jesus’ birth and to thank God for His amazing, and enduring, Gift of hope.
Provided below is an adaptation of the Christmas candlelight drama. Perhaps your family can use it, or even personalise it in your own unique way, to experience the Christmas story in a new way this year.
Tips to help you prepare:
If you don’t have a lot of candles in your home, take your children to the store and have them pick out inexpensive candles representing the Nativity. Make sure you have sturdy candleholders and matches or a lighter.
As always, be careful using fire around young children. If you have very small children, you may want to display the candles on a bookshelf or ledge where they can’t reach the flames.
Lyrics to the Christmas songs can be found in most hymnals or by using an online search engine. If you don’t have a piano or other instruments to use, sing a cappella or have music ready to sing along with.
Try to get everyone in the family involved. Take turns being the narrator, playing the music, picking out the candles or lighting and blowing them out.
A Family Christmas Candlelight Service*
Sing "O Come All Ye Faithful"
Narrator: And it came to pass that a proclamation was issued by Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken. And everyone went to his own town to register.
So Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. (Light the Joseph candle.)
He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. (Light the Mary candle.)
Sing "O Little Town of Bethlehem"
Narrator: While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to a son, whom they named Jesus. (Light the Christ candle.) She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Sing "Away in a Manger"
Narrator: And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. (Light the shepherd candles.)
Sing "The First Noel"
Narrator: Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared to them (light the tallest angel candle as narrator continues), and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
And suddenly a great company of heavenly host appeared with the angel (light all of the angel candles as narrator continues), praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests."
Sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"
Narrator: The shepherds said to one another, "Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.
Sing "Go Tell It on the Mountain"
Narrator: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We have come to worship him." (Light the wise men candles.)
The star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw Jesus with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, incense and myrrh.
Sing "What Child is This?"
Narrator: Then, having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, the wise men returned to their country by another route. (Extinguish the wise men candles.)
And the shepherds returned to their work, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen. (Extinguish the shepherd candles.)
And the angels returned to heaven. (Extinguish the angel candles.)
And many years later, Mary and Joseph, being flesh and bone, came to the end of their lives on earth. (Extinguish the Mary and Joseph candles.)
But the Light that began in Bethlehem was life. And this life, Jesus Christ, was the Light of all humanity. The light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.
And it all began on a silent, holy night . . . long ago . . .
Close by singing "Silent Night"