Nanny's Christmas Candles
The holidays are a time of nostalgia for me, Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future taking the backseat to Christmas Past. Recently I came across a photo on facebook of a friend’s Christmas Choir Boy Collection. One of them was a dead ringer of a choirboy candle I have (I actually believe it’s a choir girl, but won’t split hairs), which triggered thoughts of the little rag tag band of Christmas candles and decorations in in my dining room, and how they connected me to the Christmas traditions of my childhood.
When my brothers and I were younger, each year our mother would take us to our Nanny and Grandpa’s a day or two before Christmas. The evening would begin with the icing of Christmas cookies. The dough would be cut into traditional holiday shapes; bells, Christmas trees, angels, candy canes, and stars. The cookies would be baked, then spread out on racks and waxed paper to cool on the kitchen table. In front of the cookies stood a row of plastic cups filled with icing, each a different color along with the dullest knives my grandparents possessed lying beside them. Once they were cool enough to handle, we boys would dive in with gusto, each trying to grab and hoard as many of our favorite shapes as possible. My brothers tended to favor the simpler ones; stars and candy canes, while I opted for the more technically challenging, namely horses and angels. Since it was up to us boys to keep a careful watch on the time the cookies were baking in the oven, they tended to come out in colors ranging from pale white to almost black. This was a plus for my claiming all the angel cookies to decorate, as the variations in skin tone could represent a full range of ethnic backgrounds. Frosting complementing hair and robe colors was beyond the scope of my brothers’ limited artistic abilities. Once we three boys had iced most of the cookies along with a good portion of our grandparents’ kitchen table and floor, were slightly sick from sampling gobs of icing and “broken” cookies, and had failed to impale or “accidentally” cut each other with the dull knives, the next phase of the evening would commence. My younger brother Scott and I in the midst of icing
Hands washed, we would troop into my grandparents’ dining room to admire my grandmother’s collection of Christmas decorations. Porcelain carolers, bristly fake trees, wooden sleighs, elf orchestras made from pinecones, paper maché reindeer, and Santas formed from every conceivable material
ran up and down the center of the table. Scattered amongst them were Nanny’s Christmas candles. Little sleeping angels cradled in crescent moons, green and red Christmas trees, choristers clad in white and robes, laughing Santas, old-fashioned lampposts encircled with garland, snowmen waving hello, hurricane lamps sporting sprigs of holly (I never quite I got their association with Christmas other than Judy Garland may have carried one in the “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” scene from Meet Me in St Louis) and Christmas candles that were made to look like, well, Christmas candles (albeit ones sitting in old-fashioned candle holders). On the given signal, my grandmother, mother, and older brother Ed would quickly light them all (this was the highlight of the evening for Ed, who by the age of seven was already showing signs of becoming a fire bug). The table soon glowed softly from the light emanating from the heads, hats, treetops and lampposts. We would look on serenely, smile, take a breathe, occasionally two, at which point my grandmother would then scurry around the table, hurriedly snuffing them all out, lest they burn down too much and lose their shapes. Most of these candles were in their second, if not third decade of existence, and Nanny was determined that they would see several more. After that we moved into the next room for a reading of The Night Before Christmas. As soon as I was old enough to exhibit a nascent flair for coordinating tchotchkes, my grandmother would bring me over before the cookie making started to help her decorate, explaining the stories behind each little figures and candle. Though Ed always retained the privilege of lighting the candles, I became as vigilante as Nanny in the snuffing department, feeling a responsibility for their preservation almost as much as she did.
After Nanny moved to Florida, the candles came into my mothers possession. She carried on the tradition, but it wasn’t the same. Ed, who long before had moved on to lighting bigger and better things on fire, still had a much greater interest in watching candles burn down than preserving them. Without Nanny’s German precision and authority in leading the extinguishing procedure, the candles began to melt away, at an accelerated rate over time. I was mortified, but felt ridiculous trying to save a candle. They still came out every holiday season to be lit, but began resemble less and less the iconic Christmas shapes they were supposed to represent. Christmas trees became Christmas shrubs, and eventually, Christmas stumps. The Santas’ fates were crueler. One year their laughing heads would disappear, followed by the now headless Santa’s shoulders the next. Eventually chests would collapse into hollowed out jelly bellies. In time, a neutral observer would be hard-pressed to know whether the pairs of red legs sticking out of black boots were supposed to represent Santa, or an East German prostitute candles. The choir boy/girls grew mute, losing their eyes one by one, then mouths. Eventually it was hard to imagine any of the puddles of wax in red skirts capable of holding up their end of “Hark the Herald Angles Sing”. The whole business depressed me. Fortunately interest in the tradition flagged, and my mother eventually put the surviving candles away in a box along with several other pieces of Nanny’s Christmas menagerie, telling me I would want to have them some day when I was older. How right she was.
And so they survived. The pieces that my mother held for me eventually came to my own home, where they now sit atop the butler’s chest and on the mantel in the dining room each holiday season. Although a few candles were truly beyond recognition and thrown away, I stumbled across some amazingly similar, “like new” candles at an antique/junk store, including a ringer for one of the long lost choir girly boys. I snatched them up. They are interspersed with Nanny’s survivors, who each have their own little place in my heart, such as the pair of sleeping angels, still sprinkled with glitter. Although one seems to be missing the top of its head, it still looks serene, and I remind myself that Ray Liotta didn’t seem to mind when the same thing happened to him when dining at Hannibal Lechter’s. A new snowman stands next to one of Nanny’s, who appears to have converted to Judaism at some point, trading in his top hat for a yarmulke.One of the lampposts though still standing, has warped over time. I like to think a very heavy drunk Salvation Army Santa leaned on it for too long. Ironically, one of the ironic “Christmas candle” candles lost its wick long ago, rendering it useless as a candle, but allowing it to remain perfectly preserved, compared to its less fortunate, fully functioning cousin. Amazingly, a couple of the “not quite sure why they have anything to do with Christmas” hurricane lamp candles made it through the decades relatively unscathed. And so they sit looking at their non-wax Christmas cousins across the way on the mantel. I don’t know which, if any of my relatives will want to take Nanny’s candles after me, and carry on her legacy, but I am happy to have a hand in making the lighting part of the tradition disappear.