You can also read my essay (a revised version) below.
CANDLES OF REMEMBRANCEIt was 3 pm, a cold Christmas Eve afternoon, and a broad sunset stretched across the sky as my family drove over snow-covered roads to the cemetery at Espoon Tuomiokirkko, an impressive medieval cathedral in Finland. A vast field of candles, spreading farther than our eyes could see, flickered through the bare trees.
After we parked on an edge of a field, we joined the swelling throngs of people walking over ice-laden sidewalks toward the cemetery surrounding the cathedral. A service finished as we arrived, and people poured out the church doors.
We quietly walked along narrow pathways, cleared of snow, through the cemetery lit by candles and the fading sun; a peaceful reverence embraced us. One, two or three candles rested on many snow-covered graves; an occasional grave lay dark and empty; more candles than I could count covered other graves.
Occasionally, we paused and read gravestones: we read names of the recently deceased on new headstones; we read names on weathered headstones so ancient that the engravings were barely discernable. We wandered, while group after group—some large, some small—walked directly to their loved ones’ graves, carrying candles whose flames would withstand the wind, rain, and snow.
An elderly couple with canes hobbled slowly toward us. They left the path, struggled through several inches of snow up a slight slope trying to reach a headstone, and I wished my language skills were better so I could offer the woman my arm. She watched as her husband lit the candles and with difficulty bent to place them on the ground. They stood still, silent.
The cold seeped into my bones, and we moved on to a section of the cemetery lined with row upon row of identical gravestones surrounded by a short hedge. Upon each grave sat an identical candle, and at the rear, stretching from hedge to hedge, stood a 30-foot tall memorial for those who had died in World War II. Inside the hedge, soldiers stood guarding their fallen comrades. Small groups stepped inside the hedge and added candles to these graves. This was just a portion of those who died for Finland, I thought.
A father clasped the hands of two young children, a young girl and a little boy, no more than four years old. They lit their candle and placed it on a grave. The father drew his children close to him. As we slipped by, hoping to not disturb them, I glanced at the headstone. As I read the name and date, my heart went out to the family. Their mother had died young, in her 30’s, not many years younger than me. It was those children’s first motherless Christmas.
A cold breeze burned my face. My tears, freezing into small strands of ice as they slid downward, dampened my cheeks.
Hundreds of lit candles huddled close together on snow-covered ground near the front doors of the cathedral: a place for those who could not travel to their loved ones’ graves. We paused here as sounds of sacred music flowed out through the open doors of the cathedral. A sign in Finnish said: “We love. We remember.”
Crowds of people constantly came and went, adding their candles to the others. A woman, alone, lit a candle and held it in her shaking hands. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she found room for her candle. She paused for a moment gazing at the candle, then disappeared into the crowd.
I wished I had brought candles to light for those I love who have passed away. But I remembered them as I watched the glowing flames.
Now when I think about Christmas Eve, my heart aches and my eyes dampen for one of my friends who lives in Finland. She will soon carry a candle and walk through a cemetery and visit a grave that was not there last Christmas. She will light that candle and place it on the snowy ground and cry for the memories she had hoped for, the memories that will never be, for the infant that took only a few breaths. I wish I could be at her side to comfort her and wrap her in my arms. Instead, I will cry with her on Christmas Eve, as she lights a candle and places it on his grave, though I’m a continent away.
While walking through the silent snow in the crowded cemetery, I sensed the symbolism as the dim afternoon darkened into the candlelit night. The lit candles express a longing for our loved ones and our hope of the resurrection.
Today, I can still see the images of the cemetery, the gravestones, the candles, the people, the tears.
I think for many, this tradition of lighting candles on Christmas Eve is an expression of faith, an expression of hope for reunion, an expression of remembrance. Remembering those who are no longer with us is a somber way to spend Christmas Eve, yet it helps us realize what is truly important: our family and friends. Now every year on Christmas Eve, I remember those I love who have passed on. And I will always remember my walk through the Finnish candlelit cemetery.
“We love. We remember.”