The Smallest Flame

The coldest night I remember came a few years ago, during an outdoor candlelight vigil.

The outer desolation matched the inner feeling. It was about one degree at best, with the wind driving the temperature far, far lower. The sort of night when reporters carry pencils, so that frozen ink won’t stand in the way of a story. The sort of night where the air seems to turn to blue fire on every exposed piece of skin and no one, man or beast, ventures outside unless they had to.

This crowd had to.

There had been a death, of course. One of those car accidents that claims someone far too young far too soon. Now friends and family had gathered on almost no notice to light their small piece of fire and share one more memory, standing together shoulder to shoulder.

Someone started to sing familiar words.

Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is bright …

The melody, still soft, gained strength as others joined in.

Round yon virgin, mother and child,
Holy infant so tender and mild …

And then, united in a whisper-strong moment.

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.

And for a moment, the cold didn’t matter at all.


I’ve always liked winter the best of any season. There are the occasions for family, of course:  the visits for Thanksgiving, the calls at Christmas, the chance to see and joke and marvel at how “She can’t be starting middle school now! Really?” Add in the lights and decorations, the music, and the snow that can transform an entire landscape — when it doesn’t rearrange your spinal column trying to shovel it — and you have a near-perfect team.

But I have to confess, it’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate the cold.

Cold is the feared henchman of the winter season: silent, quick, often deadly. It lays siege to you in bed, dogs your steps when you venture outside, rides on a “lazy wind” and cuts straight through you. It doesn’t tolerate the ill-prepared  or the unlucky.

In my mind, it’s always been easier to fight than the broiling heat and humidity of summer since, as I’ve often joked, “You can always put one more layer on, but there are only so many they let you take off before calling the cops.” But that’s like saying it’s easier for a high school football team to play the Detroit Lions than the Denver Broncos — technically true, but you’re still in for a rough time.

I’ve always accepted it as a necessary part of a beautiful season. But there’s a hidden quality that makes it powerful, one glimpsed only in moments.

Cold, like crisis, unites.

Maybe it would be more accurate to say that it amplifies our best and our worst. We’ve all driven the major roads and seen the anger, impatience and desperation that result from even an inch of snow on the ground. But we’ve seen the better, too. This is the time for the volunteers that search the streets and staff the warming centers for those in need, for neighbors who shovel out neighbors, for crowds that stand just a little closer together to keep warmth from escaping.

Cold unites. It has to. Because no one can stand against it alone.

Severe need brings us together, whether it’s a 30 mph wind of solid ice or an act of unspeakable violence on a beautiful September morning. Maybe it shouldn’t take that much. Maybe we should know better how to join as the family we are, without the crushing power of mutual need.

For now, we are as we are. But winter’s chill serves as an annual reminder than we can be something more.

Maybe it’s not much. Just a candle against the dark. But candles can be enough, when held together. Enough for long enough.

The air is again blue fire as I write this. A warning, and a reminder.

Let there be candlelight.

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