JIM is at the door with the carol sheets in his hand. He was last year and has been most Christmases for the past 36 years. He's the church officer, the man to see if you want the keys to the church, the man who can tell you where the candles are kept or the tinsel for the Christmas tree.
Jim works at the farm down the road. He makes sticks in his spare time, lambing sticks and show sticks out of hazel with ram's horn handles.... And he looks after the church.
I only see Jim once a year and that's at the candlelight carol service on Christmas Eve. There are many like me whose appearance at the church in the glen is a once yearly event, and it might justifiably be asked by the dozen or so regular attendees what sort of welcome we should receive. But if Jim has any such feelings he hides them well - everybody is welcomed with equal enthusiasm.
On that evening, as many as 50 people might find their way to his tiny church. Most come by car, a very few walk - street lights in the glen are as rare as telephone boxes, houses only slightly less so.
The service does not always start on time. Jim has first to scour the hill road for signs of a latecomer's torch and then check that no one has become stuck parking a car on the slippery grass bank that serves as a parking lot.
Mrs. Carruthers at the organ accommodates such contingencies by playing the prelude largo instead of allegro or slipping in a piece of "something suitable" left over from last year. She will use the extra time to advantage, carrying out a final head count of the congregation, noting the new faces as well as those returning to the fold after absence....
"Forty-eight. One more than last year and a cold night, too. Can that pretty thing be Aileen McPherson - and she once the plainest wee thing you ever did see.... And Agnes, just like her Mither and nae thinner either, poor sowl.... Didn't expect to see him from the Cooncil; the minister will be pleased and so will the collection plate."
As a rule, the McLaren family are the last through the old oak doors and not shamed by it, Harry in his suit that he will unabashedly admit "has no" seen the light of day since this time last year.
He is not alone, and even the ladies may plunder dark recesses of their wardrobes for "seemly" wear for the carol service. The old-fashioned smell of moth balls has more than once eddied on the hallowed air as a long-kenneled fur coat brushes the pew end.
The seat in the far corner is left for Mrs. Campbell. She is not given much to smiling, and sometimes gives the impression that she feels that those of us who only frequent her house of God on the occasion of some festival or other should make some gesture to compensate her for her unflinching attendance during the other days of worship.
The children head for the front pews with the refreshing directness of youth, dragging less-eager parents behind them. "I hope my hair's tidy, and Father's got on a clean shirt."
There is a huge Christmas tree at the front of the church. Each year, Jim aims to outdo the last. Now the roof of the church has imposed its own inflexible constraint. I have spent many "Silent Nights" figuring out just how he managed to get the thing through the church door without first cutting off its branches or demolishing the doorway.
Immediately in front of the altar there is a small advent scene housed in a large upturned cardboard box. Every year the very young gaze with wonder at the stable scene. They see Joseph in his long dressing-gown robe and a slim, mother-figure gazing adoringly at the swathed form of a baby, whose beauty they easily imagine. A fluffy donkey and angels with glistening wings and haloes of silver surround the family group. As teenagers, the children return and look with eyes of reality at the plastic dolls an d hay plundered from Mr. McKenzie's byre. But it is the beatific mother and the glowing haloes they remember.
They come for their various reasons, these modern-day carolers. Some perhaps to rekindle a faith all but extinguished by events of the year, some hoping it will provide their children with a stimulus to set them on a quest, some just for the companionship and warmth they know they will find in this oasis in the hills. And some perhaps, come as I do, for the candlelight. That, for me, is what it is all about.
THE start of the service is traditional ... electric. But once the minister's welcome is over, the intimations read and the warm-up hymn is sung, Jim switches off the lights one by one and the church dims. The night edges in through the arched windows, veils the damp stain on the ceiling, the faults in the plaster, the imperfections of feature and furniture, and then hovers obeisantly on the fringe of the candlelight.
All around the church the candles are perched. On window sills, ledges, and tables, anywhere offering standing space for a stick of wax. Not candles of a cathedral splendor, grouped like white-clad choirboys on elegant stands, but random candles large and small, red, green, and old-lace colored, and apart from the three that grace the altar with ecumenical gravity, they are held in candle holders as varied as the church members from whose homes they are borrowed.
These are working candlesticks who know a thing or two about life. They have been silent observers of events now history, not only of grand parties and wise debate in large country houses, but also of frugal predawn breakfasts in laborers' cottage and the short exchanges bred of hardship.
Within seconds of the candles being lit, I am taken back in time to the byre where, as a lad, the storm lanterns held the darkness at bay; where in the early dark of winter's afternoon we milked the cows, Polyanna and Buffy, Kate and Sue. This is where I was first tantalized by the profusion of enigmas deftly concealed within the lantern's globe. It flickered, drawing my attention when the wind sighed through the weatherboard walls, to note how the flame bent and stretched and needed the shield of glass to keep it alive. Reminding me that fragile and vulnerable though it was, if succored it could light the world. Asking me to question how its light remained undiminished despite the mass of darkness that surrounded it - whether it be the whole night sky or the deepest cavern under the earth. In this private world softly described by the light of a lantern and with the warm flank of a shorthorn cow against one's forehead, it was easy to drift into contemplation, to those realms where questions without answer s led from physics to metaphysics.
I LOOK along the children's faces and see the candlelight in their eyes. They are in my world ... or I in theirs. Who wants to look at light bulbs? They are both too bright and too dull. They say nothing. But candles speak eloquently, invite you to listen to their silence and to look deep into their liquid flame ... sometimes, if you're lucky, you may hear their message, even see the light.
When we stand for "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," those nebulous thoughts, vulnerable like a candle's flame, look for their protection. I put on that "I" which is for the public view. Jim puts on the electricity.
Mrs. Carruthers draws the last organ notes over the service, and we make our way out in a friendly throng to the door, exchanging time-warmed Christmas greetings to friend and stranger alike.
Outside, people search in the darkness for their cars, probe locks with keys and squirt antifreeze on frozen windscreens. Parents try to gather their children about them.
"Come here, stay with us or you'll get lost."
But the children run off as if the darkness doesn't exist.