This story, rooted in Isaiah 11:1-9, was first told to the saints of Crafton Heights on Christmas Eve, 2002. It is the title story for my collection of original Christmas stories published by Lulu Press, I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas. I offer it as a New Year’s posting because 98 years later, I still hope that we can put down our weapons and sing a few songs together. Not because we are so great, but because I believe in the Prince of Peace to whom we sing all those carols.
He always was – and, I suppose, always will be my hero. My grandfather. I guess I always felt close to him – I’m even named for him. Edward John. To make things simple, the whole family’s always called me John – except for Pap. He called me Eddie, and I loved him.
He was born in Scotland, and had a tough, tough life early on. He came to America after World War I and settled down here with some of his other relatives. He married my Gram, and became a well-respected member of the community. It always seemed to me as if he knew everybody in town – and he probably did. He ran the only hardware store for miles around, and it was well known that if you needed a hard-to-find item, Ed would take care of you. He was funny, gentle, smart – he was my hero. I wanted to be him.
There was only one thing about Pap I didn’t understand. Everyone else in the family went to church, but not him. And on Christmas, when people came from all over to be together, we went to the candlelight service together. And my Pap – my funny, gentle, Pap – well, not only did he not come to church with us, but it’s the only time I’ve ever seen him make fun of my Gram. He would stay home and drink beer all night on Christmas Eve, and when we got home from church he’d be drunk – and angry! Every year, it was as if someone had gotten hold of the Pap that I knew and replaced him with a bitter old man. When I got old enough to understand a little bit about what was going on, I asked my Gram. She just shushed me and said that I wouldn’t understand. She said it was because of the war, and that he would get better in a few days.
On Christmas Eve of 1965, something amazing happened. We all went over to Pap’s house for dinner, like usual, and there was the old man wearing a suit and tie! He grinned and said that he was coming to church with us. I was 14 at the time, and had never seen him so excited.
We got to the church and everything went like it always did. There were the little kids in bathrobes acting out the story. And then we sang “Silent Night” and lit each other’s candles. But when I reached over to light Pap’s candle, I saw that he was crying. Not only that, he was singing in another language! “Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht! Alles schläft; einsam wacht…”
After we came home, I asked Pap why he came to church with us. And he told me a story I’ve never forgotten. He said that when he was 18 he went into the Army back in Scotland in order to earn some money and help out at home. By the time he was 22, in 1914, he was a corporal in the Second Scots Guards, stationed in the trenches in Northern France. He talked about being scared to death by all the stories he’d heard about the Germans – he didn’t trust them, he said, and he knew that they’d slit his throat as soon as say “hello”.
On Christmas Eve his unit received orders from HQ at St. Omer, stating that the enemy was planning a holiday attack and to be extra vigilant. At 8:30 on Christmas day, he looked out and saw four Germans coming across the battlefield. His captain sent Pap and another fellow out – unarmed – to make sure that the Germans weren’t going to cross the line. It turns out that the enemy carried a few tins of meat and a small barrel of beer. They wanted a Christmas truce!
Pap said that it took a while, but the beer helped things out and that by lunchtime, both sets of trenches were pretty well emptied of soldiers. At first, they buried the dead and cleaned out their trenches, but towards the middle of the afternoon, a fellow from Glasgow showed up with a soccer ball. An impromptu game broke out, with the Germans playing the Scotsmen. Afterwards, there was more beer, and the men sang Christmas carols together for hours. Pap said that they almost forgot that there was a war on as they told stories and even showed each other photos from home.
Just after midnight, there was an order from his Captain to return to the trenches. When the men were all back in the hole, the Captain fired three shots into the air. From across the field, the German commander did the same thing. The war was on again.
“Fancy that, Eddie,” Pap said to me. “Here’s the German, shaking my hand as if he were trying to smash my fingers, offering me cigars and a pint of beer – and then a few hours later, trying to put a hole in me headgear! It just didn’t make sense to me at all. I had begun to believe that if in fact we were all Christians, then we’d work things out and go home. But before I knew it, I was burying my mates and trying to save my own skin.”
It seemed as though Pap had a lot of hope – but that hope turned to anger. He reasoned that if the story of Christmas were true, then it should make a difference in the ways that we treat each other. But since they spent the next three years trying to kill each other, then the story couldn’t be true. My Pap told me that as far as he was concerned, there was no such thing as peace on earth, good will towards men. It was just a lie, a hoax, invented to make people feel better. That’s why he got drunk every Christmas, he said. He couldn’t get that feeling of betrayal or disappointment out of his mind.
But in the summer of 1964, something amazing happened. My Pap got a letter from Europe. It was from a man named Johannes Niemann in Germany. And in the letter was a photograph with four or five soldiers holding a soccer ball. On the back was a note: “Christmas Truce, 1914. Fritz beats Tommy, three goals to two.”
It turns out that Niemann had taken the photo on that Christmas Day, and somehow had tracked my Pap all the way to Pittsburgh. Moreover, Niemann asked my Pap if they could meet. Well, Gram had been after Pap to take a vacation, and so they did. They went to France in December of 1964, and there, along with a few of the other soldiers, they had a sort of “50th Anniversary Reunion”. Niemann had been one of the first Germans out of the trenches, and he and Pap spent a lot of time talking about the War and how their lives had been affected. And Niemann talked with Pap about God. He told Pap that he was a believer in Jesus Christ.
“Now you’re talking nonsense, Niemann!” my Pap roared. “How can you believe in a fairy tale like that? Don’t you remember that we were trying to kill each other? That if someone asked you what you wanted for New Year’s 1915 you’d have probably asked for my head on a platter? And I’d have wanted yours? We talked about religion all day that Christmas, but it was obvious on the 26th that there was nothing to it. It’s a lie, Niemann, a lie.”
“You see, Edward,” the German replied, “I remember very well. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t thank God for that Christmas Truce. For you, that day has become some sort of a wall – it stands between you and faith. It’s an obstacle for you to overcome. But for me, it’s different. That day has always been a window – it has let me see the power of God at work.
“When that day dawned – on Christmas morning 1914 – we were at our worst. Men from all over the world – strangers with no reason to hate – were trying to exterminate each other. But even in the hell of those frozen trenches, the power of God’s love broke through enough to give us a glimpse of what could be. Do you remember the Bible, Edward? Do you remember what it says in Isaiah? ‘The wolf will dwell with the lamb…the cow and the bear shall feed…they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea…’ That’s what our God is doing, Edward. It will come. I know it will come. I’ve seen it through a window – and I know it is happening. I want to be a part of it – and I want you to be a part of it, too.”
And so it was in a little village in France that my Pap went to church for the first time in half a century. And it was a church filled with Germans and Scotsmen who had, at one point, sworn to kill each other – but on that night in 1964, they shared the light of Christ.
Pap said to me that Christmas Eve a year later – 1965 – “Eddie, did you see what it was like at church tonight? Did you see how everyone was holding candles and their faces looked a little different? Did you notice that there was some sort of a glow? Now imagine, Eddie, what it would be like if folks looked like that without the candles? – If we looked like that all the time? That’s what I think the song means when it says, “Silent night, Holy night, Son of God, Love’s pure light Radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace…” Jesus is like that all the time, Eddie. The light just comes from him.
“Eddie,” my Pap said, “I want you to think of these Christmas Eve services as a window in your life. For a long time, I didn’t even bother looking because my heart was so closed. I know that most of your life isn’t full of that kind of beauty or warmth, Eddie. But it should be. It should be. And God intends it to be.”
He got quiet for a while, and I didn’t know what to say. Then he reached into his pocket and brought out a little box that he had clearly wrapped himself. “Go ahead, son. Open it,” he ordered me.
I had never in my life received a gift just from Pap. It was always on Christmas or my birthday, and it was always from Pap and Gram. But there were the two of us sitting in the kitchen, and I unwrapped this little box. Inside I found a stumpy little candle – maybe three inches long.
Pap smiled and told me that it was the candle that Niemann had given him in France the year before. And then he took my hands in his and he said, “Eddie, you can’t do it by yourself. Life hurts sometimes. It hurts a lot. But you can remember the way that it’s supposed to be. And you can hold your candle, Eddie. You can hold your candle.”
And every Christmas since then I’ve carried that candle in my pocket. I haven’t missed a service.
On Christmas Eve in 1982 I was on my way out the door to the midnight service. I got a call from my mother. My Pap had died that evening. I wanted to go home right away, but my wife reminded me that I was to sing the solo in church. Silent Night. And so I went to the service, and I sang Silent Night. And I sang it in German. And I rejoiced that my Pap was finally able to see the whole picture – not just through a window.
And so I’m here tonight. And I’ve got Pap’s candle in my pocket. If it looked stumpy and shabby in 1965, you can imagine that it looks pretty beat by now. But I’ll finger it in my pocket when we sing Silent Night. And I’ll pray that just as the soft wax melts with the approach of heat and flame, that the hardness, coldness, or bitterness in your heart might melt into the warmth of this room.
It’s not surprising that men want to kill each other. It’s not surprising that we claim to know the truth, and then want to do unspeakable things. But what is amazing to me is that God would love us enough to want to do something about it.
I have a grand-daughter. Her name is Johanna. She’s twelve years old, and I love her deeply. And she doesn’t know it yet, but after church the two of us are going to sit at my kitchen table. And I’m going to give her a little box that I’ve wrapped myself. Inside the box will be a stumpy old candle, a tattered photo of a few muddy soldiers holding a soccer ball, and a small Bible.
I hope she likes it. More than that, I hope she lives it.