I was probably four on the first Christmas I can remember. I have memories of other Christmases years later with beautiful trees strung with icicles and colorful little electric bulbs. I recall lying on a nearby davenport charmed by the sight. But before that, my first Christmas tree was more enchanting for another reason — it had real candles.
There was much suspense waiting for that moment on Christmas Eve when the candles were lit. It was just our family, Mom and Dad, and my little sisters Janiece and Jeanette and I. Mom in the rocker was holding Jeanette on her lap, and Janiece was standing at her knee just as bug-eyed as I must have been.
The tree would have been put up and decorated only a few days earlier. Not too much earlier not only because the tree shouldn’t get dry but especially because it was Advent, and back then Advent was as austere as Lent. So there had been only a few days in which to anticipate the sight of the tree on Christmas Eve when the candles would finally be lit.
When the moment came, Dad stood a little ways away from the tree and took a wooden match from the scratch-on-the-side box of kitchen matches and scratched it carefully so the sparks went away from the tree. Then holding the match up high he walked slowly and cautiously over to the tree and lit the top candle. Then very slowly and carefully he lit all 12 of the candles pausing only to strike an occasional new match.
Then we all stood or sat in the soft glow watching the dancing flames of the candles. Mom softly sang "Silent Night." Janiece and I stood close to her and looked into her face as she sang because we didn’t know the words yet. Although we may not have fully understood, we knew the occasion was special.
When the candles were burned down Dad went to each candle, one by one, and cupped his hand behind it and blew it out with a gentle breath. As the candles went out the room slowly darkened, and we shuffled around with mixed feelings of satisfaction with the event and even more of anticipation of Christmas Day next.
Dad, his fatherly duty done, sat in his chair and relaxed. As he relaxed, his hand dangled over the arm of the chair — dangled over a big bucket of water that waited there, just in case.
I definitely remember the bucket of water. Today I shudder as I think of my father trying to douse a tree of flame with that bucket of water.
This article originally appeared in Roadrunner Extra!, the resident newsletter of Beatitudes Campus.