Friday, December 5, 2008

Lighting the Way for Christmas

Oh, I’m late! All up and down my street, houses are being transformed into winter wonderlands, with glittering icicles dripping from eaves and sleighs and manger scenes glowing in the dark. Christmas is coming, and my house is sadly dark! I hope to change that this weekend.

Nineteenth century families used light to celebrate Christmas too. On Christmas Eve, many people lit a Christmas candle, which was to burn at least through Christmas Day, brightening the sideboard. If your family was wealthy, your candle would be made of fine wax instead of tallow (less smoke), and the candle could be so large you could burn it all the way until the end of the twelve days of Christmas, at Epiphany.

If your family lived in the country or had a large enough hearth, you might also celebrate with a Yule Log. Finding the proper log and bringing it home took as much consideration and merriment as picking the perfect Christmas tree does in some families today. You went out into the woods and found a tree that had already fallen, the bigger the better. In his Sketchbook (1820), American traveler Washington Irving records that even the fireplace at the country manor where he was staying in England had to be modified by removing the grate for the log to fit.

Those in the village tipped their hats to the log as your family dragged it past. When you finally pulled it into the house, everyone took a turn sitting on it, for good luck in the coming year. Then, with great pomp and ceremony, your father lit the log with a brand from the previous year’s log. It burned all night long to toasting and festivities, welcoming in the Christ child on Christmas day.

I can only hope my feeble attempt at lighting will do the same!

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