My most favourite, but upsetting and unsettling story from Christmas

Dec 21, 2012

Some years ago, at my local Church  Carol Service, I was fortunate enough to hear the following reading which is one person’s description of happenings over 50 years ago. I am far from ashamed to admit that no matter how often I resurrect the piece ( at Christmas ) it  still has me in tears by the penultimate paragraph. I have altered the original piece  because it is from a translation ( I think )  – although only in a small way because

1. I am not a translator, and

2. I did not see it as my place to alter such a powerful piece of writing.

I hope it adds to your Christmas wherever you may be.


Ahh no, this is not really a Christmas-story. It is not really a story either, it is an account, a plain account of something that happened somewhere. But it is not present day news which is what most reporting is about. This thing

happened more than fifty years ago, but what does that matter? After all, the Christmas story, the real Christmas story, was not actually a story as such, and it is now old news too, around about two thousand years old. What, then, are fifty years here or there?

Furthermore, there is even a remarkable similarity, even though you might find it a bit far-fetched. The old Christmas story took place in a stall. The one that happened fifty years ago was also in a stall. Well, not a proper stall, but it looked like one. It was a dark, gloomy shed, inside it was always half-light or darkness, but outside .the light shone bright and glorious by day – and even at night it was still light outside, for the shed was in a tropical region under

a glowing burning sun, as well as under a wonderful starry sky, and the moon seemed much bigger than here.

People lived in the shed. “Lived” is expressing it rather strongly. They were housed in it, because a little further off the sun or the moonlight sparkled from the barbed wire where it had not rusted in the course of years. For by now it had lasted years; or was it perhaps centuries? We could not tell anymore. We were too tired and too sick and too weak to think about it, to count up the hours and the days. We had done that in the beginning, but that was long since past. We were much more concerned with eternity than with the day or the hour.

Because so many were dying, beside us, opposite us, from hunger, dysentery and other tropical diseases; or simply because they did not want to live any more, their last spark of hope had been extinguished. We did try a bit to keep going in that concentration camp. We did not really know anymore why. For a long time we no longer believed that the war would end and that we would be liberated. We went on living out of force of habit, numbed and deadened, and with one great desire that now and again leapt at your throat like a wild beast: and that was to eat, eat no matter what. But there was nothing to eat, we were being systematically starved. Once in a while someone would catch a snake or a rat. But just forget it, no one who has survived it wants to talk about it.
There was one man in that camp who still possessed something to eat A candle. A plain wax candle. Of course he had not bought it originally or kept it just to eat it A normal person does not eat candle-fat, although they say that the Cossacks used to be very fond of it. In any case it is fat, and that you must not underestimate, when all you see around you are starved bodies and you know yourself to be one of them.

When the torture of hunger became beyond bearing he would take out the

candle which he kept well hidden in a little dented tin box and he would nibble at it, but he did not eat it. He regarded the candle as the last resort. As soon as everyone should go mad with hunger (and that would not be long now) he was going to eat the candle up.! hope you don’t find that insane or gruesome. I, who was his friend, found it quite normal at the time. Besides, he had promised me a bit of the candle. It became my life’s task, my constant care, to watch out that he should not eat the candle ail by himself after all. I kept watch and spied on him and his tin box day and night. Perhaps I remained alive because I had such an important task to carry out.

Now, all of a sudden, we discovered that it was Christmas. Quite by chance someone found out after some lengthy calculations made from little nicks and notches cut in a plank. He told it to everyone and added in a rather fiat and expressionless tone of voice, “Next year, we’ll be home for Christmas.” We nodded or made no comment at all. We had heard that now for several years. But there were a few who held fast to the idea. After all, you never knew.

Then someone spoke, perhaps not with any particular intention, but perhaps on purpose after all – I never really found out: “At Christmas the candles are burning and the bells are ringing.”
That was a strange thing to say. it sounded as a faint sound from a great distance, from long ago, something completely unreal. And I must say that the remark simply went past most of us, it just did not have anything to do with us, it spoke of something quite outside our existence, but it had the strangest and most unexpected consequences. When it had grown late in the evening and everyone more or less lain down on the boards with his own thoughts or actually, quite without thoughts, my friend became restless. He groped for his box and brought the candle out. I could see it very well in the gloom, the white candle. “He’ll eat it up,” I thought, “Will he remember me?” and I looked at him through my eyelashes. He set the candle on his plank bed and f saw him disappear outside to where a little fire was smouldering. He came back with a burning stick. Like a ghost that little flame wandered through the hut till he got back to his place again. Then the strange thing happened; he took the burning stick, that flame, and he lit the candle The candle stood on his bed and was burning.

I do not know how everyone noticed it right away, but it was not long before one shadow after another drifted over, half naked fellows, whose ribs you could count, with hollow cheeks and burning, hungered eyes. In the silence they made a ring around the burning candle. Bit by bit they came forward, those naked men, and the minister and the priest. You could not see that they were minister and priest, they were just pieces of starved skeleton, but we happened to know that they were.

The priest said, In a croaking voice: “It is Christmas. The light shines in the darkness.” Then the minister said: “And the darkness overcame it not.”
That, if I remember rightly, comes from St John’s Gospel. You can find it in the Bible, but that night, round that candle, it was no written word of long ago. it was the living reality, a message for the moment and for us, for each one of us. Because the Light did shine in the darkness. And the darkness did not overwhelm it We could not then reason it out, but it was what we felt, gathered silently around that candle light.
There was something extraordinary about it. The candle was whiter and

more slender than I ever saw one later in the world of people. And the flame, it was a candle flame that reached to the sky and in the flame we saw things that were not of this world. I cannot describe it. None of us who are still alive can. It was a mystery. A mystery between Christ and ourselves. For we knew then quite certainly that it was him, that he was living among us and for us. We sang in silence, we prayed without a word, and then I heard the bells beginning to ring and a choir of angels intoning their songs. Yes, I know that for a fact, and I have a good hundred witnesses, of whom the greater part can no longer speak, they are no longer here. Nevertheless they know. Out there, deep in the swamps and the jungle, sublime angelic voices sang Christmas carols to us, and we heard the chimes of a thousand bells. It was a mystery where it came from. The candle burned taller and taller and more elongated, till it reached the highest part of the high dark shed and then right through it, right up to the stars, and everything became incandescent with light. So much light nobody ever saw again. And we felt ourselves uplifted and free and knew hunger no more. The candle had not just fed my friend and me; no, the candle had fed us all and made us stronger. There was no end to the light.
And when someone said softly: “Next Christmas we’ll be home,” then we believed it this time. For the light proclaimed it to us, it was written in the candle flame in fiery letters; you can believe me or not, but I saw it myself. The candle burned all night. There is no candle in the world that can burn so high and so long.

When it was morning there were a few who sang. That had never happened in any year before. The candle had saved the lives of many, for now we knew that it was worthwhile going on, wherever it might lead, but somewhere in the end a home was waiting for us all. That’s how it was. Some went home before Christmas the following year. They are back in life now in Holland. But they find the candles on our trees are small, much too small. They have seen a greater light, one that is always burning. Most of the others had also gone home before it was Christmas again; I myself helped to lay them in the earth behind our camp, a dry spot between the swamps. But when they died their eyes were not as dull as before. That was the light from the strange candle. The light that the darkness had not overcome.



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