The Sustenance of Flame
In a season marked by excess, candles can provide peace, warmth, and simplicity.
By Stephanie Hunt
On my sister’s mantel, above where the stockings are hung and the fire is laid, in the space reserved for displaying family finery, sits a modest tin candle mold. She inherited it from my grandparents’ hearth, where it stood tall and proud for as long as I can remember. Like a miniature pipe organ, eight cylinders are lined up side-by-side, and on either end are graceful handles, like on a trophy, only flat and made of tin. “If you put them together,” my sister says describing the handles, “they’d make a heart.”
My great-uncle Pete made this candle mold, and hundreds like it, at his tinsmith shop in Old Salem, a traditional Moravian settlement in the North Carolina piedmont. Though not antique silver or fine porcelain or an heirloom of great monetary value, it possesses elegance in craftsmanship and function that make it mantel-worthy. Beyond aesthetics, the tin mold holds a place of honor in our family, I believe, because of what it was designed to do: cradle warm beeswax into hand-dipped candles, candles that in my mind have always been the centerpiece of Christmas.
Long before tapers became a retail rage, before entire stores were dedicated to the aromatic wares of wick and wax, my Moravian ancestors put care and artistry into their candle making, into this most fundamental and necessary task—the bringing forth of light. And at the Moravian Love Feast, which was our family’s Christmas Eve ritual, beeswax candles accompanied bread and tea. We were fed by the sustenance of flame.
My memories of those Love Feasts are crystallized in part by a child’s heightened Christmas Eve excitement, and in part by the unusualness of it all—going to church in the dark of night and—should we? are you sure?—eating in the sanctuary. Dressed in our holiday best, our coats folded as pillows against the cold, hard pews, we were served airy saffron-scented potato buns branded with an M and warm clove-spiced tea. After this simple meal flavored with carols and readings, we passed a basket pew to pew, like an offering plate, only we took from it a small candle the color of ochre and smelling of honey. The Moravian candle was skirted in deep red loopy crepe paper, like a ruffled dress-up, to guard against hot tears of dripping wax. Beginning with the Christ Child candle on the advent wreath, we passed a flame, one wick bowed to another, light born anew, over and over, until the whole sanctuary was chandeliered by our hand-held stars. And so it was in church on Christmas Eve, amidst hushed refrains of Silent Night, that I first got to play with fire.
From candles beckoning in frosted windows, to luminaries along sidewalks, to the menorah’s branch of light, December is a month aglow; the candle its elemental, ephemeral spark. Part magic wand casting a spell of radiance and wonder, part personal bonfire, fierce and hazardous, a candle burns with a spectrum of emotions and passions as varied as the hues in its flame.
At its violet-azure core, like the inside of a whelk or the last shade of night before dawn, it ignites as hope, fear, power—both emptiness and everythingness kindled together in that lowest blue flame before nothing. In its blinding white brilliance, it flickers as dance, joy, promise—leaping in the draftiness of a breath, sashaying at a hearty laugh. When still, the flame is shaped like hands in prayer. Yet it is fleeting reverie. Gone, extinguished, at the whim of a whisper.
“A candle is made to become entirely flame,” writes Rumi. “It is nothing but a tongue of light / describing a refuge.” Perhaps that is why the candle speaks so powerfully to me, especially in this holiday season that often seems too much, too bright, too overblown. It is a refuge drawing me in around its quiet amber aura. A refuge offering warmth in the cold, peace in the night, solace through the long, dark solstice. It is the refuge of simplicity, like a humble tin candle mold, or a manger. A refuge glimmering with the possibility that we too might be so combustible of spirit as to become entirely flame.
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Stephanie Hunt holds a Masters of Theology from Vanderbilt Divinity School, and is a freelance writer and mother of three in Charleston, SC. She now lights candles on Christmas Eve at the 325-year-old Circular Congregational Church, where she was happy to discover they serve traditional Moravian love feast buns, in the pews, on Ash Wednesday.
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