Murdoch looks at old and new ways of celebrating the coming of the light
The custom of Christingles began in the Moravian Congregation of Marienborn, in Germany, on 20th December 1747, at a children’s service conducted by John de Watteville. After singing some hymns together he read some verses which the children themselves had written ‘in honour of the Saviour’s birth’. He then explained that happiness had come from the birth of Jesus ‘who has kindled in each little heart a flame which keeps ever burning to their joy and our happiness’. To make the point even clearer each child then received a little lighted wax candle with a red ribbon. John de Watteville ended the service with his prayer: ‘Lord Jesus, kindle a flame in these dear children’s hearts, that theirs like thine become.’ The Marienborn Diary then concludes, ‘hereupon the children went full of joy with their little lighted candles to their rooms and so went glad and happy to bed’.
The Moravians took the custom of Christingles with them to Labrador and Pennsylvania, to Tibet and Surinam, to the Caribbean and South Africa, and people in each part of the world adapted it to their own use. No one knows for certain when the word ‘Christingle’ was first used or from what it is derived.
Various suggestions have been made. One is that it comes from the Gaelic ‘aingeal’ meaning fire, as in the ‘inglenook’. Another is that it comes from the Latin ‘igniculus’, the diminutive of ‘ignis’ meaning ‘fire’. Other possibilities are that it derives from the German ‘engel’ or ‘kindle’, a diminutive of ‘kind’ ‑ a child, thus meaning either Christ-angel or Christ-child.
The symbolism gradually developed and today in Britain the Christingle consists of an orange representing the world, with four cocktail sticks on which are impaled nuts and raisins representing the four seasons of the year and the fruits of the earth. Around the orange is a red ribbon or tape representing the blood of Christ and the salvation of the world. The orange is surmounted by a candle symbolising Christ the Light of the world. In Moravian churches the Christingle service is usually held on the Sunday before Christmas or on Christmas Eve and sometimes on Christmas Day. Essentially it is a children’s celebration of the Christ‑child which reaches its climax when each child receives a lighted candle or Christingle in the darkened church, symbolising the truth of the Christmas story that in the world’s darkness there has shined a great light.
With imagination the service can be adapted in a number of ways and as a result of a worship workshop between the inner city churches of the United Reformed Church in Birmingham, a new element in the service has developed at Carrs Lane Church Centre. As the red ribbon is tied round the orange, each of the worshippers ties a piece of red wool round the wrist of their neighbour, as a sign of the salvation of the world through the blood of Christ. This sacred thread is worn until it comes off of its own accord. Sometimes it will last for a whole year and is cut off at the following year’s Christingle service before being replaced by the new thread. The wearing of such a symbol on the wrist is not only Biblical but is understood by people of other faiths and by many young people, for whom friendship bracelets are common. It is also a means of evangelism as people ask about it and it opens up conversation about Jesus Christ as the Light of the world.
The actual service can be divided into four parts, with a large Christingle being built up at the front or in the centre of the church. Beginning with a globe of the world representing The Whole Earth with suitable songs and readings, four baskets of fruit can then be placed around it representing The Fruits of Creation. Then a red ribbon is tied round the globe to signify The Blood of Salvation and finally a large candle is lit on top of the globe to portray The Light of Christ. At each stage there are appropriate songs and readings and the small Christingles are distributed and lit towards the end. People then take them home.
Possible readings and songs are:
The Whole Earth: Genesis 1:1-2, 26, He’s got the whole world in his hands
The Fruits of Creation: Deuteronomy 7:12-13, Praise and thanksgiving, Father
The Blood of Salvation: 1 John 1:5-7, 1 Peter 1:18-19, And can it be that I should gain
The Light of Christ: Isaiah 9:2-3, Shine, Jesus shine