In late November of 1990 I received my December issue of Reader's Digest. I read all the humorous parts of the magazine, and one cover story and then promptly stuck it on a shelf with all the other issues that I still had in my possession.
Soon it was Christmas. At that time all of my three children were young. Christine was fourteen, Jeri was eleven, and Joel was five.
It was a tough time for us. I was unemployed. I had been without work for almost two years. The country was in an economic recession and things didn't look too good for the coming year. I was not sure what to do. I was taking all the temporary jobs I could find. These jobs actually came from an agency that offered part time work to technical people. I installed a mri, worked for other phone companies installing microwave systems for the Navy, installed voice mail systems, whatever I was offered. Diane helped with the cash flow by working as a demonstrator for super markets, frying sausages, handing out flyers and samples of cookies, that kind of thing. Together the two of us were just getting by. Unemployment compensation was not something we were interested in, even if it paid as much as our combined pay checks.
There would not have been anything for the kids if Diane and I had not decided to spend the traditiononal Christmas money given to us by Diane's dad on just them.
The girls knew that our financial situation was bleak so they were not expecting much on Christmas morning.
They awoke and were very surprised to find a brand new Nintendo attached to the TV.
There were also some new clothes, Disney videos, Fisher Price Dinosaurs for Joel, and candy for everyone stuffed into stockings.
We had to tear the kids away from the Nintendo for breakfast. After a meal of home made muffins, eggs and sausage (we had lots of that) and orange juice we went back to the living room for a reading of the Christmas story.
We had a great morning in spite of being as poor as church mice or something like that.
The morning was really good, much better than expected, but I was still anxious about the coming weeks. I was fighting discouragement.
I was not sure why but I had the urge to read something for myself. I got up from my chair and and got the copy of Reader's Digest that I had stuck on the shelf weeks before.
While Manheim Steamroller was playing on the stereo, I began to thumb through the magazine looking at the condensed Christmas story collection that it contained.
I came across a story written by a prisoner in a Japanese concentration camp. After a paragraph or two I knew that I had to read it to the family. Silent Night began playing just as I started. It was amazing how the music fit the words as I read out loud. I began to think that this moment was not an accident.
This is the story:
"We were barricaded into a dank shed ringed with barbed wire in a Japanese concentration camp called Si Ringo Ringo on the east coast of Sumatra. Outside the tropical sun blazed by day and a huge moon filled the fantastically starry sky by night. Inside the shed was perpetual darkness.
There were people living in that shed. No, 'living' is the wrong word. We were packed away there. Sometimes we could see beyond us little sparks, as sun or moon flashed on patches of barbed wire that hadn't rusted over the years. For it had been years now - or was it decades? We were too sick and too weak to care. In the beginning, we thought about such things as the day or the hour. Now, eternity.
Beside us and in front of us, men died - from hunger, from disease from the ebbing of the last ray of hope. We had long stopped believing in the end of the war, in liberation. We lived in a stupor, blunted, with only one remaining passion that flew at our throats like a wild animal: hunger. Except when someone caught a snake or a rat, we starved.
There was, however, one man in the camp who still had something to eat. A candle!
Of course, he had not originally thought of it as food - a normal person doesn't eat candle wax. But if all you saw around you were emaciated bodies (in which you recognized yourself), you, too, would not underestimate the value of this candle.
When he couldn't stand the torture of hunger anymore, the prisoner would carefully take the candle from its hiding place, a crumpled little suitcase, and nibble at it. He didn't eat it all. He looked upon the candle as his last resort. One day, when everyone was utterly mad with hunger, he would need it.
To me, his friend, he had promised a small piece. So I watched him and his suitcase, day and night. It became my life's task to see to it that in the end he would not eat the entire candle by himself.
One evening after counting the notches he'd made in a beam, another prisoner mentioned that it was Christmas. In a flat, toneless voice he said, 'Next Christmas we'll be home.' A few of us nodded; most didn't react at all. Who could still cling to that idea?
Then someone else said something very strange: 'When it is Christmas, the candles burn and there are bells ringing.' His words barely audible, as if they came from an immense distance and a deep, deep past. To most of us, the remark had no meaning whatsoever; it referred to something completely out of our existence.
It was already very late, and we lay on our boards, each with his thoughts - or, more accurately, with no thoughts. Then my friend became restless. He crept toward his suitcase and took out the candle. I could see its whiteness clearly in the dark. He is going to eat it. I thought. If only he won't forget me.
He put the candle on his plank bed. What now? He went outside, where our captor's kept a fire smoldering. Then he returned, carrying a burning chip. This little flare wandered through the shed like a ghost. When my friend reached his place, he took the chip, the fire, and he lit his candle.
The candle stood on his bed, and it burned.
No one said a word, but soon one shadow after another slipped closer. Silently these half-naked men with sunken cheeks and eyes full of hunger formed a circle around the burning candle.
One by one they came forward, the vicar and the parson, too. You couldn't tell that's what they were, for they were merely two more wasted figures, but we knew.
'It's Christmas,' said the parson in a husky voice. 'The Light shineth in the darkness.'
Then the vicar said, 'And the darkness overcame it not.'
That night those words from the Gospel of John were not some written word from centuries ago. It was living reality, a message for each of us.
For the light shone in the darkness. And the darkness didn't conquer it. We knew this not because we reasoned it out at the time, but because we felt it, silently, around the piercing flame.
That candle was whiter and more slender than any I have seen since. And in the flame (though I'm sure I can never describe it, not really - it was a secret we shared with the Christ child) we saw things that were not of this world. We were deep in the swamps and the jungle but now we heard the bronze sound of a thousand bells ringing and a choir of angels singing for us. Yes, I am perfectly sure - I have over a hundred witnesses. Most of them can't speak anymore; they are no longer here. But that doesn't mean they don't know.
The candle burned higher and higher, ever more pointed, until it touched the very roof of the dark shed, and then it went on, reaching to the stars. Everything became full of light. Not one of us ever saw so much light again.
We were free, and uplifted, and we were not hungry.
Now someone softly said, 'Next Christmas we'll be home,' and this time we knew it was true. For the light itself had given us this message-it was written in the Christmas flame in fiery letters. You can believe it or not; I saw it myself.
The candle burned all night (yes, I know there is not a candle in the world that can burn so long and so high), and when morning came, we sang. Now we knew that there was a home waiting for each of us.
And there was. Some of us went home before the next Christmas. The others? Well, they were home as well. I helped to lay them down in the earth behind our camp, a dry spot in the swamp. But when they died, their eyes were not as dim as before. They were filled with light, our candle's light, the Light that the darkness did not conquer." (The Candle, c'77 by Hollandia, printed in December 1990 Reader's Digest Magazine, pp. 69-71, ubp).
I was so moved by the spirit of the man who wrote this story that I could not finish it without tears. I thought that if he could have this kind of faith in the middle of such dire circumstances, that I could have faith that our New Year would be better. I could have the faith that something would happen to change my family's fortune and circumstances.
I was right. The following March I started a little company that I called LINK voice & data. It would be a struggle but we got it off the ground and last June we sold it after owning if for twenty four years.
We still read The Candle at Christmas. Jeri reads it on Christmas morning in her home as well. It still makes me cry.
Maybe you are going through a rough time ( My Mom and Dad just did), or know someone who is. This is the day for remembering that the light of God can overcome any darkness. God can bring you, your friends or your family out of any situation you are in. He can bring you into the light!
God bless and Merry Christmas!