I have a backpack at church tonight instead of my usual diaper bag. Inside it are only a Ziploc with Pull-Ups and wipes and a small Kiddie-brand fire extinguisher.
I brought a freaking fire extinguisher to church. (Can I use “freaking” and “church” in the same sentence? Oh well.)
It seems bananas to me, but not as wild as the fact that, in a sanctuary full of people, they hand out crayons all around, including one to each of my four small children, except all the crayons are white and have wicks and they light them all on fire.
I love Christmas Eve candlelight services.
Or, rather, I did back before it became the most ridiculous worst-case scenario I find myself in every single year.
At my church, Christmas Eve services go like this: Walk into the foyer from the sub-zero cold. Wait for glasses to defog. Greet as many people coming out of the earlier service as you can find. Hand out Christmas cards or bags of caramel corn, if you managed to get as far as cards or caramel corn this year. Mosey into the sanctuary and find a seat as the Spotify Christmas playlist fades and the pianist begins, signaling that we have about 90 seconds before the service starts for real. After the welcome, we pray, read the Christmas story from Luke 2, and watch someone light all five Advent candles.
If this sounds a little rote as I tell it now, it may help to know I’m increasingly drawn to the repetition of this one sacred night.
At the end of all this, we get instructions to “take one and pass it down”—underneath the leftmost chair in each row sits a box of candles, each tucked into individual plastic holders. The pastor reminds us to always tip the unlit candle to the lit one (to prevent hot wax drips) and to hold it upright for a minute after we blow it out at the end. Then someone turns off all the lights. (Typically, this responsibility falls to my husband, the ridiculously good-looking sound guy whose board is right in front of the bank of light switches.) For a few moments, the only light comes from the five Advent candles. The pastor lights his little candle and starts walking down the center aisle as people on both sides dip their (unlit!) candles to his, then pass the flames down their rows. After he’s started lighting candles down the aisle, we start singing “Silent Night” a capella. By the second verse, all two hundred (or so) candles are lit, and they stay that way for the remaining verses. The sanctuary has a warm glow as we sing together, our faces shining in the firelight.
“Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright…”
At the end of the song, we blow out our candles, wait with them upright until the wax hardens just enough, then pass the boxes again, this time from right to left, depositing our candles and replacing them under the leftmost chair of each row for the next service. We head out of the sanctuary, linger for a while in the foyer—long enough for autostarted cars to warm, if only a little—talking to friends who attended this service and the ones coming for the next one (I always pick the middle of the three services so I can at least try to catch everyone), pass out more cards and caramel corn (maybe). Then we brave the cold and drive home to continue whatever prep or merrymaking we have planned for the night before Christmas.
At least this is how it used to go, back before I started bringing a fire extinguisher in my backpack. I’m sure the service feels much the same to the people around me, but it stresses me all the way out. I have four children, ages 3, 5, 7, and 9. Lately, my strategy for Christmas Eve service is less about fellowship and more about tactical maneuvering. We arrive early but miss the foyer chat (I didn’t make cards or Christmas treats, anyhow) so we can take the seats closest to the door, because I need to be as close as possible to the sound board (and other parent of this weird little circus, who mans the faders and knobs). These are everyone’s favorite seats—the first to fill at every service, hence my early arrival—and I don’t want to monopolize them, but I’m aware I may need to exit very quickly with no notice.
I nod a nervous hello to my husband then plant myself in the third seat in. The preschoolers sit on either side of me and the elementary girls sit on either side of them, taking up the five best seats in the house. I give them Very Serious Instructions regarding behavior in this service and Even More Serious Instructions about the coming candle situation. “Most of all, you have to listen VERY CAREFULLY,” I tell them, hoping to cover all contingencies. I pop my backpack under my seat, unzipping it proactively and double-checking to make sure my hand knows how to find the extinguisher in the emergency that may well be imminent. I’m anxious and I’m hot. The wispy hairs that have flown out of my messy bun are sticking to my face and neck in an itchy, annoying way. (Oh yeah! I definitely meant to fix my hair and put on some mascara and change out of yoga pants! Shoot!)
Ready or not, the piano starts to play as my husband turns down the playlist coming from his production computer. We’re doing this, I guess.
The next half-hour is filled with open-flame-related anxiety and whispered reminders to stop stomping on the floor with winter boots, stop facing the wall, stop talking (or at least talk quieter), and the like. We sing songs. My kids are familiar with them and thus sing with great gusto and fair-to-moderate pitch. I’m trying (failing) to keep myself regulated as we get closer to the moment when four little candles with four menacing flames will be held tightly in eight unpredictable hands.
Finally, it’s fire time. My oldest is in the leftmost position, so she gets the box from under her chair and hands it down. I question for the one-millionth time the wisdom of telling the 3- and 5-year-olds, “Yeah, I think you guys might be old enough to hold candles this year,” while also congratulating my foresight to braid all three girls’ hair to decrease the chances of catastrophe. I triple-check the fire extinguisher, this time propping it upright inside the backpack, which I’ve moved to my seat. Pastor Eric gets to the last row and Jenna solemnly tips her unlit candle to his.
We have ignition.
I help the little two and then glance around, paranoid, passing out instructions as loudly as I can while still staying below the ambient volume of “Silent Night” sung a capella.
About the middle of the third verse, I see 5-year-old Brian getting a little too curious about his candle. I whisper with increasing volume and panic, “Away from your face, Bud! Away from your face! BRIAN!” But he’s mesmerized. His head bows in slow motion toward his flame, then jerks back suddenly. I see in the golden candlelight a little curl of smoke disappearing from above his forehead. He lets go of the candle with his right hand (managing to keep it upright in his left) and rubs his noggin, looking at me with both surprise and offense. I smell the distinctive aroma of singed hair, but there is no persisting fire and, just like that, the song is done. We blow out candles (“Gently! Keep them upright for a minute!”) and put them away. I zip my bright-red Kiddie extinguisher back into my bag and put it on my back, grabbing the hands of each of my preschoolers.
As we exit the sanctuary, I let go of Brian’s hand to high-five my husband. “Another year we didn’t burn the church down!” I exclaim. “I didn’t even have to use this,” I point to my backpack. “And Brian’s hair was only a tiny bit singed!” At this point, all the anxiety I’ve been holding inside bubbles out in maniacal laughter. My husband gives me a thumbs up, I grab my son’s hand, and we walk through the foyer, drawing weird looks as I crazy-laugh. I didn’t remember to warm up the van ahead of time, so we march out to a cold vehicle and, after buckling the little ones in, I sit in the driver’s seat and take a deep breath.
All is calm. All is bright. Well, the “bright” part is over, but at least I finally have something like “calm.” The ambient volume is anything but peaceful noise but less anxiety-inducing—no sense of impending doom, no need to put out a literal fire, and the chilly car is oddly relieving.
In an unexpectedly serene moment of clarity, the weight of the service hits me: God came as a baby. Emmanuel. God with us. He came to be with us in my minivan amid a chorus of “can’t we please light some more candles and sing again? For Christmas?” He came to be with us in the sanctuary now smelling of my son’s burnt hair. He came to be with this weary mama as I put my pyromaniac children to bed alone on the night before Christmas while Dad stays at church through the final service.
As I take a moment to connect with the God who opted to enter this world full of noise and chaos and brokenness and beauty, there is calm. I can’t rightfully say I am calm, but I can enter His calm in this moment where He is with me.
Later, once all four kids are down (with a melatonin assist to counteract their fire-fueled mania crossed with anticipation of presents), I light a candle on my dresser and sit in my room. All is calm, all is bright. Recalling again the first Christmas, I wonder how calm it actually was. Birth is not typically described as “calm,” especially with livestock and shepherds hanging around. Mary—a first-time mother far from home, was learning to nurse and care for a newborn without the benefit of her own mother’s presence. These are not ingredients I would choose for a night of beatific serenity. My mind swirls with the possible scenarios Mary and Joseph endured that night; none of them includes unbroken calm.
Perhaps my desire for Christmas-related tranquility is overrated. Maybe the Christmas carols have it overstated. “The little Lord Jesus, no crying He made”? Uh…sure. Shoot, if there was a fire in the stable to keep Mary and a new, vernix-covered squishy Jesus warm, it’s altogether possible she had a little bit of stress over the possibility of straw catching on fire.
But even if all was not calm that starlit night, He came. God was there—the Prince of Peace Himself—and that was enough.
Robin Chapman is a part-time writer, editor, and birth photographer and a full-time imperfect mama, wife, Jesus follower, and normalizer of failure. She’s trying to learn how to do this motherhood thing in a way that doesn’t land the whole family in intensive therapy. She has a heart for helping other mamas buried in the little years with hope, humor, and solidarity. You can find her hiding out in the bathroom with an iced dirty chai, writing and editing and making spreadsheets for Kindred Mom where she is a cheerleader for mamas, or online looking for grace in her mundane and weird life. She lives in Fairbanks, Alaska with her four delightful (crazy) kids—some homeschooled, some public schooled, some too young for school at all—and her ridiculously good looking husband, Andrew. Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and her blog.