Paper Candles and The Spirit of Christmas
‘GOD JUL!’ This St. Lucia procession was photographed twenty years ago, on December 13, 1994. For second and third grade students of Jane Terry the celebration was the culmination of several weeks’ study with help from RUHS student, Justin Gregg, who spent the previous year as an exchange student in Sweden. From her home in Delaware, Jane Terry remembered this week, “We learned the song children always sing on that morning, while it is still dark, as they take coffee and cookies to their parents.” Pictured (from left) are Brooke Locke, Tasha Olmstead, Eden Sutherin, Emma Zavez, Kristina Richburg, and Tom Pinello. Justin Gregg, now makes his home with his wife and daughter in Helmond, The Netherlands. “God Jul!” is Swedish for “Merry Christmas!” Happy Holidays to one and all! (Herald File / Bob Eddy)
Imagine you are attending a spring recital for a dance studio. The curtain lifts, and there on the stage among 20 improbable ballerinas trying to remember foot positions, one child moves with unmistakable grace. She’s not the one you’re holding the rose in your lap for, but you cannot take your eyes off her.
Or, perhaps community singers are presenting their annual holiday concert. Sixty people fill the scene, but one stands out. Perhaps it’s the exuberant lad with a clear high voice, or maybe it’s that gracefully aging alto, graying hair perfectly framing her bright, intelligent face.
Someone stands out, making the moment memorable.
This was the experience I had decades ago, when sent to the East Randolph School to photograph a celebration of Christmas from around the world. One class, representing a Scandinavian Christmas, processed through the halls dressed in white, with crowns of candles fashioned from construction paper upon their heads.
I had a telephoto lens on my camera as they approached, dropped to one knee, and took this photograph.
Lucia, an immensely popular saint in Nordic European countries, is celebrated yearly with a festival of lights during the deep darkness of winter. There is something beatific about a young maiden, dressed in simple white, a ribbon or two, Advent candles rising from an evergreen wreath atop her head.
The Garden Club of Randolph used to have a festive tea each year with a young teen dressed as St. Lucia amid the floral bouquets and plates of festive cookies and cakes. Many years I photographed the young “Lucia.” It was a beautiful event. Battery-operated candles in the wreath were a distraction, however; a technology out of keeping with the rustic simplicity of the traditional celebration.
I wouldn’t have thought Lucia could fare any better in an elementary school pageant. If someone said to me, “You’re going to a school to photograph children dressed up like Saint Lucia, with cardboard candles in their hair,” I can’t imagine being filled with anticipation. Who would expect an image like this from such an assignment?
Whence the Magic?
At the very first, I found this scene compelling because the children were singing a Swedish folk song as they walked along. Bless Jane Terry, their teacher! They were prepared in magical ways.
Every child is caught up in the simple majesty of the celebration; for this blessed moment they have forgotten they are students in East Randolph. Here we behold a procession right out of time immemorial! Each face is touched by the sweet perfection of this collective endeavor.
My telephoto lens pulls the children together. We feel not their individuality, but unity of purpose. The scene wouldn’t have been better if I had carefully arranged it in a studio.
The composition is unusual. Dividing the frame into two parts horizontally, we find the bottom half predominately shades of white, save a few buttons, a paper St. Lucia, a ribbon, and the subtle shading of some tatting on a frock collar. The arms of the children fall gracefully to their sides or, in the case of the girl to center right, open slightly, in a posture almost welcoming, to hold a beautiful tray of cookies.
Faces of children fill the upper half of the composition. Their hair and candle crowns are so wonderfully arranged! All their mouths are open together in song.
There is no way for us to hear them now—their voices have long since lowered to adult timbre, and even the hallway they walk in has not been a school for years! Yet, take another look. . . Listen. Can’t you hear sweet voices rising in song above the shuffling of feet?
The last bit of compositional note are the candles, scores of them rising from the heads of the children, rising up and out of the frame. Their light color, mixing with diffused winter light from windows at the back, echoes the whiteness of the clothing below. There is a lifting here, a movement up and away, like the winged rush of doves. Mystery and wonder, fashioned from bits of paper and glue by the young children greeting us.
Face Of Christmas
As Christmas approaches each year, I remember ths morning when I fell to one knee before a procession of children in East Randolph. I lowered myself to get a better camera angle but, once there, I felt the presence of improbable majesty. This simple pageant invoked something infinite and holy in that school hallway.
In the end, we are left with the face of that one girl to the right of center. Her head slightly tipped, eyes gazing into our own, she offers simple gifts, and seems to be asking, eternally asking, “Will you join us for Christmas?”
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