Scarvey column: Shriek in heavenly peace

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 22, 2011

About 10 years ago, I went to a Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Brethren in the Virginia town I grew up in.
We picked up our candles at the door and found our seats. As other worshippers came filing in, we scanned the order of worship, amused that the church had printed an informational paragraph about the candlelight part of the service. It included practical instructions on how to light the candles. Participants were also admonished not to get the lit candle near clothing or hair.
We had a few laughs over the thought that people would need to be advised to keep a flame away from their hair or clothing. We chalked it up to our litigious society, which has prompted manufacturers to put some rather obvious warnings on products, including one on a Rowenta iron that reads: ěDo not iron clothes on body.î Or one for a sleep aid that warns, ěMay cause drowsiness.î
After we all had our candles lit, we sang ěSilent Nightî a capella. As always, I felt a sense of peace and serenity pass over me as we all sang in the dark together, faces glowing in the candlelight. It was a beautiful experience.
But before I could give myself over fully to the moment, someone across the aisle let out a piercing scream.
All was not calm.
We kind of peered across the center aisle to see what was going on, but we couldn’t see much. After a few seconds, the screaming stopped.
A person in our vicinity whispered that someone’s hair had been on fire.
In a real testament to the politeness of this congregation, the music did not stop ó although we did slow down a bit and threaten to peter out for a few bars.
I was dangerously close to creating a scene myself. After the initial shock wore off, I got the giggles, which then turned into stomach-heaving laughter. Those quaking shepherds in the song had nothing on me. By sheer force of will, I managed to recover my composure by the end of the song.
When you show up at your old church every few years or so, itís not a good idea to laugh like a hyena during ěSilent Night,î especially when the possibility exists that someone has just incurred third-degree burns.
On the way out, no one was talking about anything else.
ěKind of spoiled the mood, didn’t it?î I asked. I was thinking that my girls would be so upset that they were still in Connecticut and had missed all the drama.
ěI thought maybe someone was speaking in tongues,î my brother said.
Before we left the sanctuary we learned from those who had been on the other side of the aisle that, indeed, someone’s hair had caught on fire.
ěI guess that’s the last time that weíll light candles on Christmas Eve,î said my mom, somewhat sadly.
ěIt smelled kind of like a singed chicken,î mused our friend Nelson Gardner, the father of one of my best friends in high school (a man who achieved some degree of local notoriety when he sold his entire herd of Holstein cows to John Lennon for lots and lots of money back in the 1970s).
ěWhat in the heck did Nelson mean by that?î I asked later as we sat around the dining room table. ěHow would he know what a singed chicken smells like?î
ěWell, of course he knows,î my dad said.
The older generation around the table gave me a brief education about the bygone era in which people used to routinely pluck their own chickens for Sunday dinner. I did know that the bird was plunged into hot water to make plucking easier, but I wasn’t aware that after the de-feathering, you lit a rolled up newspaper with a match and used that to singe away any pinfeathers or fuzz that remained on the carcass.
So Nelson probably did have a pretty good memory of what a singed chicken smelled like. Thatís probably an aroma not quickly forgotten.
And neither is a Christmas Eve service when somebody starts screaming during ěSilent Night.î
And just so you know, nobody got hurt.
Note: This is a re-working of a 2002 column.
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