The Christmas Candle
By Richard Paul Evans
On a snowy Christmas Eve a young man made his way along a dark, deserted cobblestone street. His name was Thomas, and he was wrapped in a woolen cloak, a knapsack flung across his back. In his hand hung a tin candle lantern. Behind the lantern’s glass panes sat the remains of a spent candle.
When he saw the glow of candlelight through the shop window of the chandler, the village candle maker, he hurried his steps, turning onto the snow-covered pathway. In Thomas’s way stood a beggar, shaking his cup for coins. Thomas pushed him aside impatiently and opened the door to the shop.
Inside the shop, metal pots filled with tallow and beeswax hung from a stone hearth. The old chandler stood with his sculptor’s tools in his hands, surrounded by the beautiful creations he had made out of wax.
“I am lucky to find you here,” Thomas said. “The town is empty.”
The old man gazed silently at Thomas as the young man glanced about at the rows of sculpted candles. There were sprites and fairies, angels with see-through wings, and fragile princesses in gowns as delicate as lace. They smelled of myrrh and frankincense and meadow flowers.
“You are a foolish old man,” Thomas said. “You spend hours making beautiful things that devour themselves. How long before the flame melts an angel into an ugly clump of wax?” He pointed to a row of simpler candles. “I only need light. I will take one of those.”
The chandler looked steadily at Thomas. “The Christmas candles are of no good to you.”
Thomas was startled by the stern response, but he laughed. “It would do me much good not to stumble in the dark. Are you playing me, old man? I will not pay more for your candle than it is worth.”
“It is only four coppers….but you may find it costly.” The old man’s words were strangely serious.
“I have money! Give me the candle!” Thomas shouted. “It is late, and my family is waiting for me. I need illumination to find my way.”
“Then it is illumination you desire?” the chandler asked softly.
“That is what I need,” Thomas replied.
The candle maker nodded slowly. “So you do.” He took a candle, dipped it over a flame, then placed it inside the lantern’s tin frame.
Thomas dropped some coins on the counter and walked to the door.
The old man’s lips pursed in an odd, amused smile. “Merry Christmas, my brother,” he said.
The farewell surprised Thomas. “To you, as well,” he stammered. Then he hastily stepped out into the darkness, the lantern lighting the road ahead.
Thomas had traveled only a short distance when a shadow emerged from an alleyway. A robber, he thought fearfully. He held out his lantern. “Who’s there?” he called. Then, in the light of the candle, he saw it was only a frail woman huddled against the cold.
“Sir,” cried the woman. “A pence, please?”
His eyes narrowed in contempt at the beggar. Then, as he looked at her more closely, he gasped. He knew her face well! It was his own mother!
“Mother! What is this prank? Why do you greet me as a beggar!”
The woman stared at him. “Just a ha’ pence, Sir?”
“Why are you here? Where are my brothers? My sister?” Thomas asked. He reached out to her, but she pulled away. “Mother, how peculiar you act. You will catch a chill. Here, take my cloak.” He removed it and held it out to her.
Cautiously, the woman came forward, then snatched the coat and retreated into the shadow.
But as she moved from the lantern’s light, her appearance changed. She was not his mother, but a beggar indeed! With Thomas’s cloak in hand, she disappeared into the darkness.
“A strange trick,” he said to himself. He wrapped his arms around his chest, wishing he had kept his cloak. “It is I who will catch a chill.”
Thomas walked on, quickening his pace against the frigid air. As he passed beneath the awning of a darkened inn, the candle revealed another form, lying in the gutter. He held out the candle and again gasped. “Has the universe gone mad? Elin, my brother! Are you sick?”
He set the lantern down, and pulled his brother’s limp arm around his shoulder, struggling to lift him. “Elin, I cannot carry you.”
He pounded on the inn’s door, which was opened by a grim-faced woman.
“My brother is sick and I fear he will freeze before I can come back for him. May I bring him inside?”
“For the price of a night,” she cackled. “A shilling.”
“A shilling?” Thomas reached into his pocket. “I have only sixpence.”
The old woman scowled and began to shut the door.
“Wait! My knapsack is worth more than a shilling!” Thomas cried. “And the trousers inside are newly tailored. I will give you everything.”
The old innkeeper looked at the bundle, then reached out a fat hand.
Thomas flung his knapsack from his back and handed it to her with the last of his money. She opened the door. “Bring him in.”
Leaving the lantern on the curb, Thomas dragged the man into the inn’s foyer. As he gently laid him on the wooden floor he suddenly saw that the man’s face, like the beggar’s had changed.
“So it is your brother who lay in the gutter?” croaked the woman.
“You are mad,” the woman muttered, and she shoved him out the door.
Outside, Thomas picked up the lantern.
He looked into its glass panes. “There is something strange about your light,” he whispered.
Thomas had just glimpsed the bright lights of home when he came across a little girl shivering in the cold.
“Have your anything to eat, Sir?” she asked in a faint voice.
Thomas felt a stir in his chest. This child was tiny, no bigger than his sister…..Suddenly he pulled the lantern away. He wouldn’t shine it in her face. He could guess its trick. And what could he do for this poor waif? He had no food or money left to give.
“I have nothing,” Thomas murmured as he left her, willing himself not to turn around.
Penniless and cold, Thomas trudged onward, hardly glancing at the familiar houses of his childhood.
His own home was dressed for the season, and music and laughter came from inside. As he entered the foyer, his mother greeted him with great excitement. “Thomas,” she exclaimed, “you have arrived!”
Hearing her cry, his sister and brothers rushed into the room to welcome his arrival.
When the joviality had begun to settle his mother looked at him peculiarly. “Thomas, where is your cloak?”
“Yes,” said his brother Elin, “and why have you no pack?”
Thomas gazed solemnly into their bewildered faces. “I….gave everything away,” he said.
“To whom?” his mother asked, puzzled.
Thomas looked down at the waning Christmas candle. “The old man spoke the truth. You are costly….” A smile of understanding slowly spread across his face.
“…..but of great worth.”
“What is this riddle? What old man?” his sister asked.
“A wise man who sculpts candles,” Thomas replied as he gazed at the face of his sister. And just then, in his mind, her bright face became the woeful, hungry face of the poor child in the cold.
Thomas looked at the sumptuous banquet laid out on the table. Suddenly he turned to the door.
“Thomas, where are you going?” his sister asked.
“I must see about another member of our family,” he said.
And as he left the warm, fragrant house for the cold night, Thomas’s heart was warm with joy. For that Christmas Eve, a lesson was learned and taken to heart: If we will see things as they truly are, we will find that all, from great to small, belong to one family. And this truth, known from the beginning of time, is perhaps seen best in the joyous illumination of Christmas.
Reminds me of the Bible verse where Jesus said, “If you did it to the least of these, you did it to me” (paraphrased) :).