The following story by Emmalinda MacLean first appeared in “Emersonians” on December 23, 2017. We reproduce it here for your enjoyment.
Director of Religious Education
I wanted to share a Christmas Eve story with all of you, although I won’t be there tomorrow night [December 24, 2016]; you’re all in my heart. Merry Christmas.
I know many people who are struggling this holiday season with how to celebrate, when it seems that there is so much to fear and mourn. I feel that tension, too. This story from my childhood has come back to me this week with new meaning, and I share it in hopes that it may be meaningful to some of you.
I grew up at the First Unitarian Church of San Jose; I’ve never missed a Christmas Eve service there. When my brother and sister and I were young, my mother volunteered in Religious Education classes, and my father was the chair of the building committee for years. The San Jose church was built in 1889 and is a historical landmark—it’s a beautiful old building with a massive domed sanctuary and lots of stained glass windows.
In October of 1995, when I was 8 years old, there was a terrible fire at the church. The dome over the sanctuary collapsed; the fire department’s hoses did almost as much water damage as the fire itself, and when the smoke cleared there were piles of rubble and ash and soaked hymnals in our spiritual home. It was a tragic accident. The congregation cried, and held each other, and then took a deep breath and started to rebuild.
For three years we met in the senior center across the street, but for the well-attended candlelight Christmas Eve services the congregation rented space in a considerably grander hall a few blocks away. Our Christmas Eve ritual has always included passing the light, and the heat of a small white candle close to my face in the darkened sanctuary, surrounded by faces each lit by their own flickering yellow glow, is one of my earliest and most vivid sense-memories of Christmas.
But for each of the three Christmases that our sanctuary was filled with charred wood, tarps, and scaffolding, we had another ritual. Dad had continued to serve on the building committee, in spite of the fire’s major impact on what the job entailed, and he oversaw much of the rebuilding. Burning a church down is a great way to test people’s volunteer commitments—not everyone stuck around, but my father is not someone to walk away when he can help.
So for three years, my family and a few others would leave Christmas Eve services at the beautiful brightly lit rented hall, holding our little white taper candles, and walk the few blocks through downtown San Jose to the church. Dad unlocked the building and we slipped in, re-lit our candles—very carefully; the San Jose congregation has a particularly cautious relationship with fire to this day—and stood in a circle in the darkened sanctuary to sing a few Christmas carols, holding our small flickering lights. The scaffolding and exposed beams made strange shadows, and it felt scary and forbidden and dangerous and exciting. It wasn’t Christmas until we had brought light and song into that sanctuary.
My mother still says with pride that in over 125 years, the church has never been dark and silent on Christmas Eve. Even when the roof caved in, we raised it back up. Even when it seemed the sky was falling, we joined together to bring light and music into the darkness. That’s the gift of a community of faith; that’s the gift my parents gave me all the Sundays of my childhood, but especially those dark, candle-lit Christmas Eves, surrounded by scaffolding, filled with faith, hope, love, and joy.
May it be so for all of us.