Regular listeners to Radio 2’s Simon Mayo programme will be familiar with the Confessions slot where listeners write in with their admissions of guilt for past misdemeanours. With the imminent departure of Mr. Mayo from the station, I no longer have an opportunity to bring my Christmas confession before the nation. Instead I seek forgiveness from the good readers of Chandlers Ford Today.
As we approach the weekend of Christmas carol services, I am reminded of this shameful event from when I was a child of ten or eleven.
It was the era of the cold war, and the UK was dotted with US military bases, providing a first defence against the perceived threat from the USSR. We lived in a village not far from one of these bases and, as part of their community outreach programme, local residents were invited to the annual carol service.
We went as a family (mum, dad, two sisters and I). I have to admit that the main attraction for my siblings and I was the possibility of American burgers and fries afterwards rather than the carols. This was, remember, a time when MacDonald’s and Burger King were pretty much unheard of in the UK; the closest we got to fast food was a Wimpy restaurant where they still gave knives and forks with your meal.
As we went into the church, each person was given a candle (unlighted), and told we would need it later in the service. You may want to remember this bit; it’s quite important to the story.
The carol service progressed. To be honest, I can’t remember a great deal about it. There were carols; there were readings; some carols were familiar; some carols were unfamiliar; and some had familiar words but an unfamiliar tune.
Eventually we reached the highlight of the evening (no, not the burgers and fries). The lights in the church were dimmed; the choir sang an unaccompanied rendition of Silent Night; and the candles were lit – starting at the front of the church, and passing the flame from neighbour to neighbour to symbolise the light of Christ passing through the world.
The flame reached our row. Dad’s candle lit; Mum’s candle lit; big sister’s candle lit; my candle … didn’t light. It fizzed and crackled and spat, but resolutely refused to light. We tried lighting it from Mum’s candle; we tried lighting it from Mum’s and Dad’s candles together; even people in the row in front turned around to help. It was no good. My candle was not going to perform and in the quietness of the church the fizzes and crackles were beginning to get noticed. We gave up and I was told to share with one of my sisters.
The service ended without further incident, and we went to the post-service meet-and-eat (sadly, not burgers and fries). The hosts were most apologetic for my faulty candle: “too bad you got a dud candle there, buddy”. I nodded and smiled politely. Partly because, being unused to the American accent (viewing of American TV programmes was strictly censored by my parents) I had no idea what he was saying. But also because … er … it hadn’t been a dud candle. At least, it hadn’t been a dud candle when I had been handed it.
You see, at the start of the service I wondered whether a damp candle wick would light and determined to find out. So at every opportunity I had licked, sucked and generally covered the wick in saliva – obviously unnoticed by my parents. And ultimately discovered that a damp candle wick would not light.
In my defence, I think I may have made the candle wetter than I intended. Also I was expecting only that it wouldn’t light; I wasn’t expecting the loud noises that accompanied the efforts. It is probably a useful experiment for any schoolchild to carry out, because there will surely be an occasion in the future when this knowledge will come in useful (I just haven’t worked out what occasion that will be). But maybe the best time and place to carry out this experiment is not in a dimmed and hushed church as an accompaniment to Silent Night.
And I’m sure that the fact that we were never invited to another carol service is purely coincidental.