Christmas feels like burning hot candle wax on your hand, and it’s one of my favorite feelings all year.
Both of my parents are ministers, and as you would expect, they were kept very busy at their churches during Advent and Christmas. While my older sister and I tagged along for most of the services, Christmas Eve was a mandatory outing. Extended family would come to us for Christmas so my parents could preach, and as a result, we usually had at least one set of grandparents and some cousins for the holiday festivities.
For most of my childhood, we would go to the midnight service at my mother’s UCC church in rural Massachusetts. In my memory, every Christmas Eve service had immaculate weather, with stars shining across the sky and a cool breeze shocking us the perfect amount. I’m sure my brain has added some embellishment to that, but it does not embellish the feeling of burning hot candle wax on your hand.
For those who have never attended a Christmas Eve service at a New England UCC church, let me explain where this sensation comes from. As you enter the white box that is the architectural style of most of these churches, the ushers hand you a small wax candle. We conclude the Christmas Eve service by singing “Silent Night” with the lights off – the only light comes from the candles we’ve lit and passed on to the people sitting next to us.
These candles come with a small circle of paper to catch the wax drippings so they don’t burn your fingers. There are slits around the hole in the paper for the candle. I think those slits are supposed to make it easier to fit the candle inside the paper, but the engineers clearly never tried to use one of these themselves, because the slits also make a nice, neat passageway for lines of burning hot candle wax to run down to your hand.
At first, you don’t notice. You’re singing “Silent Night,” the effect of the roomful of candles confuses your senses and your eyes are still adjusting, and then you feel like your fingers are stuck together. You give them a wiggle, and they don’t move. Then you start to realize that your hand is INSANELY hot, and you try to pull the candle away with your free hand (if your sister is holding the hymnal, otherwise you’re in trouble), which then forces hot wax down the side of the paper circle and directly onto your GOOD hand, leaving you as some sort of waxen-handed Christmas monster, trying to not shout out in pain right as glories stream from heavens afar.
One of my first friends in college, David, and I bonded quickly over a lot of common interests and experiences from growing up – similar tastes in music and similar die-hard dedication to a New York baseball team, etc. We performed in a holiday concert at a local church our freshman year and talked about what Christmases were like when we were younger. We chatted at great length about the starlit Christmas Eve services, the frosty breeze, and, of course, the burning hot candle wax on your hand, as his family went to a UCC church and had the same tradition.
Other people’s families enjoy Christmas tunes like “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” and “Chestnuts Roasting Over an Open Fire,” which shouldn’t even have the audacity to dub itself “The Christmas Song.” Since my Christmas musical memories center mostly around hymns (and a weird cassette my dad had of cats singing Christmas carols, but that’s for another essay), I never liked these songs and mostly wrote off holiday music around that time. I had a few jazz Christmas albums, but Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas was the only one I’d ever put on willingly. My family had some CDs of choirs singing all the usual hymns and carols, but I wouldn’t ever drive around blasting that in my Honda Civic with the volume turned all the way up.
What Christmas song would anyone listen to in their Honda Civic with the volume turned all the way up?
“Hey Guys! It’s Christmastime!” by Sufjan Stevens.
When I graduated from high school, Sufjan Stevens released Songs for Christmas, which I bought because I was getting pretty heavily into Illinois and Seven Swans, so a new release was exciting – especially since the tracklists included “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” and “The First Noel.”
I listened to the discs in order – I remember loving “Amazing Grace” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” instantly, digging his arrangements of “I Saw Three Ships” and “The Friendly Beasts,” and thinking “Put the Lights on the Tree” was kind of stupid (I’ve since changed my mind). I got through the first three at home, then had to drive somewhere, so I took disc four (Joy) and left. I didn’t like “Little Drummer Boy” and I thought “Away in the Manger” was a little simple. Just as I started tuning out of listening, track 3 started. At ten seconds in, I looked at the stereo and turned up the volume a bit. At twenty seconds in, I turned it up a bit more. By the time the final chorus (Is it the chorus? Does this song have a chorus? The loud part.) started, my Civic stereo was cranked all the way and the windows were rolled all the way down on a 30-degree evening.
The burning hot candle wax was hitting my hand.
I now tie the holiday season to not only burning hot candle wax, but also the sensation of three jangled guitar chords leading into smashing, soaring distortion, and then fading into very traditional Sufjan-esque songwriting imagery (dads on bikes, back-of-neck kisses, bed quilts), and whiplashing back and forth between the two in a Pixies-esque fashion. Forget folks dressed up like Eskimos – your father might let us stay up all night!
Sufjan’s Christmas music catalog continues to amaze and inspire me with its diversity of sound, imagery, and musical influence. I’m sure everybody has their own favorite songs from these collections, and hopefully they take the time again, this holiday season, to feel the burning hot candle wax feeling of Christmas with the music they love.
Greg teaches Elementary School General Music, Choir, and Jazz Band in Plainville, CT, where he also directs the Plainville Choral Society. He performs music regularly with The Jolly Beggars, a traditional Celtic folk band, and occasionally solo with his own music and traditional folk music. He presents regularly at Music Education conferences at the collegiate, state, regional, and national levels on topics such as Storytelling in the Classroom and Choosing Quality Traditional Folk Music.