The Children's Christmas Candle Service and Christingles Part 2

After the 1870s

‘Christingles are made in this way. A hole is made in an orange, and a piece of quill, three or four inches long, set upright in the hole, and usually a second piece inside this. The upper half of each quill is cut into small strips, and the end of each strip inserted into a raisin. The weight of the raisins bend down the little boughs of quill, forming two circles of pendants. A coloured taper is fixed in the upper quill, and lighted on Christmas Eve. The custom is German.'

Christingle decorations were probably introduced into Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria. The above description of how to make Christingles appeared in the January 1869 edition of MacMillan's Magazine (published 23 December 1868). MacMillan's Magazine was a monthly British literary magazine with contributions from primarily British authors. The description prefaced an anonymous poem simply titled Christingles, a touching tale of a mother lamenting the death of two of her children, reflected in the number of Christingles missing from the family table. The poem is too long to reproduce in its entirety here, but this stanza reinforces a suggestion that the Christingle decoration was an inexpensive variation on a Christmas tree.

Before we put the holly up
That busy afternoon,
I called for the tapers and oranges,
And the children bought them soon:
And we gave each slender quill-stem
An orange for its root,
And made the delicate branches bow
'Neath the load of raisin fruit.
And the tapers stood in the middle,
Yellow, and green, and white;
And the Christingles were ready
To be lit at fall of night.

After the Education Act of 1870 set the framework, for the first time, for schooling children on a national scale, Christingles was selected for inclusion in a series of school reading books adapted for the new legislation. As literacy improved dramatically between 1870 and 1900, Christingles became a popular choice for recitals. As late as 1911, a reader requested the name of a book or magazine where the poem could be found.

In December 1900, newspapers in England and Ireland ran an article - complete with illustration - which aimed to make Christingle decorations fashionable:
‘The decoration of the Christmas dinner-table is always an important item in the housekeeper's mind. How to get something new, and at the same time something pretty - flowers are at ruination prices and holly wreaths are done to death. An idea borrowed from the German ‘Christingles’ may appeal to some, and suggest variations upon it to others.’

The article explains how to make a Christingle, and suggests that a crystallised cherry or plum would look better than a raisin. The whole visual effect is further enhanced by yellow silks, a high standing desert dish, glass troughs, Japanese leads, coloured chrysanthemums on long stalks, moss and ivy. The reader is warned to regulate the size and height of this, according to taste and appropriateness!

Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, British citizens were already reading about and making Christingle decorations. But what of the Christingle service?

The Moravian children at Malmesbury continued to receive their annual Christingle 'treat' (see last month's article), even after the outbreak of war in 1914. Elsewhere, ministers and teachers introduced the decoration into services and lovefeasts as they moved from congregation to congregation, bestowing it with the symbolism and ribbon of the 1747 candle. By Christmas Eve 1936, Christingle services were being held in perhaps a dozen British Moravian Churches.

In the post-Second World War years, the service attracted the interest of the BBC. In December 1947, Rev J. Kingdon Berry of the Moravian Church at Gracehill described the 'picturesque annual service' in a broadcast by BBC's Northern Ireland Home Service. In 1953, the Westwood Moravian Church Christingle service was broadcast as part of Children's Hour by the North of England Home Service. A service was televised locally from Gracehill in 1954, and in 1956, it was listed in the Radio Times as A Christingle for Christmas, and shown on children's television on Christmas Eve. Two years later, Gracehill was featured for the third time on TV, when scenes from its Christingle service 'to symbolise the world and its joys and pleasures and to commemorate the Christ Child as the Light of the World' were included in the Royal Prologue: Christmas at Home, a special film by the BBC which preceded the Queen's Speech on Christmas Day. By the end of 1958, aided by the technology of radio and television, the Christingle service had spread beyond the Moravian churches to millions of people. It was becoming popular with other Protestants as well.

In 1968, the Church of England Children's Society embraced the service, and have promoted it widely ever since to raise funds for their work. The Society held a 250th Anniversary Christingle service in Liverpool Cathedral in 1997, celebrating the first Moravian children's candle service held in 1747.

Get in touch: did you listen to, watch, or take part in one of the BBC broadcasts? Were you at the 250th Anniversary service in Liverpool Cathedral? I'd be interested to hear about your memories of these events. Sources for this article, and a complete transcript of the poem Christingles, are available on request. I can be contacted via the Editor.

Correction to last month's article: the first children's candle service held at Fulneck was not in 1749, but Christmas 1755. Schoolgirls gathered in their Rooms and 'the Middle girls found in theirs a table covered with white cloth, on the top was wax candles burning, for every child one each.' My apologies for any confusion caused.
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