Seeing your sanctuary in a different light

Seeing your sanctuary in a different light

Candlelight transforms a meetinghouse for Christmas Eve.

Sonja L. Cohen
Christmas Eve at First Parish Church in Northborough, Massachusetts

First Parish Church in Northborough, Christmas Eve, 2012. (© Gary Phillips)

© Gary Phillips


Those who regularly attend church, whether for worship, events, or small group gatherings, can get to know their building pretty well. The sanctuary especially can seem almost unchanging beyond some seasonal décor.

That’s why there is something magical about seeing that familiar space in a different light—in particular, candlelight. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations hold evening services featuring candlelight for special occasions, such as vigils or a Solstice or Christmas Eve service.

At First Parish Church in Northborough, Massachusetts, the Christmas Eve tradition is to sing “Silent Night” by candlelight. For those few minutes, the sanctuary of the Federal-style building, usually bright and white, with its high ceilings and tall windows, takes on an otherworldly appearance.

Gary Phillips, a First Parish member who took this photo in 2012, described the moment: “I love the way the warm light casts a yellow glow about the church. It creates a mood that only happens once per year, and only lasts for three minutes.”

It isn’t just a Northborough tradition. Especially at later evening services, a song and pass-the-flame ritual with lowered lights before a benediction or meditation is common practice. Northborough’s interim minister, the Rev. Dr. Anita Farber-Robertson, said all of the congregations she has served have done something similar.

Karen Nelson, a member for 35 years, said First Parish has been offering a candlelight service on Christmas Eve for as long as she has been there. At one point, she said, they had to use electric candles due to fire concerns—understandable since their 1808 building had to be rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1945—but eventually they returned to real ones.

Does your congregation have a special candlelight ceremony? Tell us about it in the comments below. Or share a photo of it on FacebookFlickr, Instagram, or Tumblr with the tag #UUcandlelight.

This article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of UU World (page 11).