The Candle Cross Tradition at Grace
by Pastor Dean Lueking
Listen to “Once in Royal David’s City" (Soloist: Olivia Renteria, Class of 2010)
The candle cross formed by the children each Christmas Eve has become a deeply loved tradition at Grace Church. For the children who participate, it’s a defining moment. Fourth-graders watching it from the pews think “Next year I’ll be up there!” and eighth-graders realize “Next year I won’t.”
Longtime Grace School sixth grade teacher Elfrieda Miller began the tradition in l943. Her pupils remember her no-nonsense insistence on doing things right. "Hold the candle just so! No wobbling! Exactly in line with the others! When one arm tires, bring the other up slowly, so that no one notices." Elfrieda was so exacting because she wanted the children to learn that reverence requires discipline. Years later, Grace choir members can still repeat the drill as they keep coming back Christmas Eve after Christmas Eve to worship and remember. Indeed, all of us who cherish the power and beauty of this tradition do the same. For us, too, the children give us a defining moment for measuring time, remembering other Christmas Eves and those dear to us as well as wondering how things will be when next Christmas Eve rolls around.
Grace School teacher, organist, and music director emeritus, Paul Bouman, enriched this tradition greatly during his years from l953 – l983. Under his direction, the signature carol “O Holy Night” was joined with the candle cross to proclaim what the Christ Child came to do “He knows our needs. Our weakness is no stranger.” No wonder, then, our eyes tear up and hearts overflow as these children, so young and tender, sing of truth more profound than they yet realize.As the Christmas Eve candle cross tradition at Grace flourished throughout the l960’s and beyond, Paul Bouman kept enriching it by using both darkness and light in the sanctuary and joining music both quietly solemn and joyfully bright. “Once In Royal David’s City,” “O Holy Night,” “Torches,” Luther’s “Ah, Dearest Jesus, Holy Child,” and the song by 19th century German composer Peter Cornelius describing a family Christmas Eve celebration (“The holly’s up, the house is all bright…”) are inscribed lifelong in the memories of all who once sang them (and us who have heard them) on Christmas Eves through the decades.
The important task of preparing and costuming the children for their respective parts in presenting the Christmas story fell to Margaret Kruse, the legendary fifth grade teacher at Grace. When asked how they fared through lengthy readings, she said “Quite well!” adding on second thought “…I guess we did lose a few Josephs who fainted from standing stark still.”
A major gift to the tradition came in 2000 when Children’s Choir leader Gwen Gotsch opened participation to public school children of the Grace congregation. A great move! And one that requires more cooperation by parents and children involved.
Noteworthy: when this tradition began three quarters of a century ago, 58% of Americans came to worship each week. In the decade of the l960’s alone it fell by a record 13% and has steadily declined since to its present 35%. As we at Grace face the challenges these statistics present, the Christmas Eve candle cross tradition is ever more precious. Why not honor it by inviting folks, especially children, who have no idea of what they’re missing to come with you this Christmas Eve and find their welcome at the manger?
I make this appeal as one who at age 7 was brought to a Christmas Eve service in my home town for the first time. I’ve been a Lutheran ever since.