The Candles of Christmas

As the old year draws to a close, it is clear that Yorkshire 2000 marked a significant milestone on the Tantramar. Not only did the celebrations focus attention on the arrival of Yorkshire settlers in 1771–75; an opportunity was provided to review an important episode in local history.

High on any list of Yorkshire legacies was the introduction of Methodism. The majority of Yorkshire immigrants were staunch followers of its founder John Wesley. Not long after their arrival they began the building of chapels. The first was erected at Point de Bute in 1788; followed by Middle Sackville in 1790.

One surviving object from the latter chapel, is a splendid branched candelabra . For many years it was largely forgotten, tucked away in an Upper Sackville barn. In 1975 the candelabra was rescued and painstakingly restored by the late Lindsay Smith. Today, this reminder of early Methodist roots occupies a place of honour in the sanctuary of Sackville United Church. Each Christmas Eve its candlelight glows, adding interest and meaning to the midnight service.

However, candles have a much greater significance than the mere provision of light. The religious use of candles, so much a part of todays seasonal celebrations, may be traced to the beginning of Christianity. Over time candles became symbolic of Christ, the Light of the World, and thus a central part of the Christmas ritual. The season of Advent has inspired the lighting, on successive Sundays, of four special candles. In turn, these represent: hope, peace, joy and love. Later in the Christian calendar, Candlemas Day, a time for the blessing of candles, is celebrated in many churches. It falls on Feb. 2nd., forty days after Christmas.

What type of candles were used in the candelabra when it hung in the Methodist Chapel at Middle Sackville? The answer is provided in: Tamped Clay And Saltmarsh Hay by Cunnningham and Prince. After pointing out that paraffin wax was not available until 1870, they suggest that properly prepared tallow was commonly used; with beeswax and bayberry wax as possible alternatives. Wax made from bayberries was prized because when burned it had a pleasant, piney odour. Since bayberry shrubs were not plentiful on the Isthmus of Chignecto, these candles were reserved for special occasions such as Christmas.

In a recent conversation, Helen Walton recalled early twentieth century Christmas celebrations in Port Elgin. Many of her reminiscences centered around the Candles of Christmas. The tree did not go up until the afternoon of December 24th. My mother was responsible for decorating the metal candle holders went on first. The candles were of different colours and had been made in a twisty mould. Each one was carefully placed so that the flame would not touch the branches. Sparklers went on next and then ropes of stringed popcorn and cranberries. One special decoration consisted of cheese cloth bags tied with ribbon and containing barley candies there was one for each member of the family and a few extras for visitors.

Christmas morning featured the stockings that had been mysteriously filled by Santa Claus the previous night. Helen remembered: There was always a piece of my mothers special raison bread on top. You could count on the toe of the stocking being filled with an orange. This was a special treat, as oranges were scarce in those days. The main feature of Chrismas Day came in late afternoon, when it was time to light the tree. Candles and sparklers were carefully lit and then we stood back in awe and admired the spectacle all too soon it was over.

In the 1920s and 30s the Christmas season was much shorter than today. In the one room rural schools, serious preparations did not begin until after the first of December. Then practise started for the Christmas concert. Gradually, as the date approached, regular classes were suspended and each pupil was given a special task. It might be rehearsing for a drill, dialogue or recitation. Others were preparing decorations for the tree. A few days before the great event, the older boys would go to a nearby woodlot and bring back a Christmas tree along with boughs for trimming doors and windows.

Soon the tree would be decorated in the manner already described by Helen. Following the concert, candles were lighted. As a precautionary measure, a bucket of water or sand was placed nearby just in case. Then Santa Claus arrived and presents were distributed. Once he had disappeared, the candles would be carefully blown out and removed. Another Christmas Concert was had ended.

The Candles of Christmas were much in evidence in a recent event held under sponsorship of the Westmorland Historical Society a members potluck supper at Keillor House in Dorchester. Such an historic home is worth visiting in any season; however, it is never seen to better advantage than at this time of the year. A cheery fireplace fire, hot mulled cider, festive food and good fellowship took on added meaning as dusk fell, and candlelight bathed the house in soft tones. It was easy to drift back, by way of imagination, to the first Keillor House Christmas in 1813.

Another Westmorland Historical Society event, a Christmas Carol Service, rotates among historic churches throughout the County. Appropriately this year, it took place on Dec. 17 in Dorchester United Church. Originally a Methodist congregation, its roots go back to the first Yorkshire settlers in the area. The claim has been made that music was the soul of Methodism; accordingly, hymns composed by Charles Wesley became a natural focal point. A rousing rendition of Wesleys well known carol, Hark The Herald Angels Sing provided a most memorable climax. The President of the Westmorland Historical Society, Alice Folkins and her group of volunteers, are to be commended for their hard work in organizing these special events.

Now that Christmas 2000 celebrations are well underway, the time has come to wish all readers the Compliments of the season!