Based on true events
By Todd Stocker, December 2021
It was 1839. For some reason, he rose from his rickety bed very tired. Maybe it was due to the change of seasons. Most likely, the exhaustion stemmed from a combination of recent events. He established a mission school (called the Rauhes Haus) for wayward boys only a few years prior, was working on setting up yet another youth hostel several towns away, and had multiple writing and speaking engagements due within the next few months.
Yet, Johann accepted that while his big initiatives in working with the youth, poor, and homeless took a toll, this day, he knew the restless and tired feelings came from having to face the one question that his young students would ask him incessantly this time of year.
“Is today Christmas?”
“Not yet,” he’d reply. “God gives us moments to practice patience and this is one of them.” He knew they’d ask again tomorrow.
In his heart, he was sick of the question. “There has to be a way to keep the kids from asking this every single day!”
A thought came to mind. A holy idea, he said to himself. “I’ll build something that shows how many days are left until Christmas — a calendar, of sorts.”
It was still early but the wind had not settled down. Venturing to the barn that was part of the initial property purchase, Johann pushed open the large, half-frozen, door. A few birds flew out into the icy wind, only to return quickly to the shelter of the drafty, but solid building.
Johann wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but he knew there was something hidden somewhere in the dark, dusty corners that he could use. He trusted God to lead him to it.
Scanning the junk piles of sickles, moldy hay, and drag chains, he saw it. In the far back corner, half covered by an old wheat sack was an old, discarded carriage wheel. Its hub and spokes were intact and much of the felloes onto which the spokes attached themselves was complete. The hard rubber that would’ve lined the felloes was mostly chewed away by the little critters that made the spacious barn their home.
No matter. Johann pulled it away from the sack, coughed a bit from the dust, and smiled. He knew that if he could somehow use the wheel as a teaching tool about the advent of Jesus’ birth, he’d be able to build anticipation in his students and, as a side benefit, decrease his frustration with his students.
But what could he use to show a daily marking that led toward Christmas? “Maybe I could take a chalk mark on the wheel for each day. Maybe I could attach pine cones and take one-off as we approached the holiday.”
Just then, through one of the countless gaps in the wall of the barn, a light-beam shone through from the first-morning sun and lit the whole barn with wondrous splendor.
“Light!” Johann exclaimed. “I’ll use the light of candles each day! We need to light the classroom anyway. Why not make it a momentous teaching occasion!” He chuckled out loud at God’s timing and inspiration.
That afternoon, he walked briskly to the general store and asked Martha, the clerk at the establishment, for twenty-five candles – one for each day of December leading to Christmas Day.
“That’s a big ask, Pastor!” Martha said from behind the waist-high counter. However, she knew he needed a more-than-normal amount to light the church for the upcoming Christmas services. “I only have a few out front but let me check in the back for more.” Martha disappeared behind the curtain that separated the storefront from the storeroom.
Johann couldn’t stop smiling. The thought of visually seeing the upcoming Christmas celebration day dazzled his imagination.
Interrupting his thought, Martha emerged with a wooden box filled with discarded, imperfect, and used candles. “Here we are. You’re more than welcome to use any of these. Only half the normal price!”
Johann picked through the contents of the box. They weren’t stunning by any means but he was able to find twenty-one candles that he could use. Only a few matched each other in height or width, but all of them were reddish in color.
“I need four more, Martha,” he said.
“Well, we do have the ones on display, but they are only the white-cream colored ones,” she said walking to the shelf on the other side of the store. “I’ll have to charge full price for these.”
Martha pulled the four candles from the shelf. They were in perfect condition, never used, and all the same height and shape.
“I’ll take them all, Martha. Put them on the school’s account.” Johann said.
He hurried back to the parsonage to begin assembling the “Christmas is coming” candle calendar. He knew it would take some extra brainpower to figure out how to set the whole thing up.
Back at the barn, he placed the box of wayward candles out on a distressed workbench. He lifted the heavy carriage wheel and plopped it not the bench next to the candles. Several of them rolled off and landed in the soggy hay beneath his feet.
Johann proceeded to remove the chewed rubber, revealing the full felloes which still had some of their original white paint. Carefully, he arranged the candles around the wheel, shifting the place of several of them multiple times to make sure they all fit and fit well. After several minutes of arranging, he realized that he could use the four, pristine, white-cream colored candles to mark the Sundays of the week.
And there it was — hub and spokes leading out to a perfect ring of imperfect candles.
He took one of the candles, lit it, and used its wax to secure each candle into its place.
But how was he going to display it to the students? He didn’t have an extra desk on which to set it and it was too heavy to hang from the ceiling. Besides, tomorrow was the beginning of the students’ “season of asking that question.”
He started looking around the barn for another holy idea and there it was. An old, dusty, oakwood speaking stand that he used to carry around when he spoke at other churches and schools. It was standing next to another stack of old hay. After a quick modification, Johann fit the candle-laden wheel onto the stand, stepped back, and admired his work. A smile and tear broke across his face. “God will be honored through this work,” he thought.
The chilled wind whistled through the poorly set parsonage window. Its noise woke Johann as it had multiple times before, but this morning, he sprang out of his bed, stripping off his nightclothes and putting on his day suit all in one movement. The sun was still sleeping.
Johann ran to the coal room in which Stefan, the property caretaker slept. Stefan was indebted to Johann not just for the paid work, but for including his four-year-old boy in the school, free of charge.
Shaking his shoulder, Johann said, “Stefan! I need you!”
“Revered, it’s too early to be up. What’s so urgent?”
“Just come! Hurry! The children will be up soon.”
Stefan slowly unwrapped himself from his warmish bed, threw on his heavy wool coat, and followed Johann to the barn.
Like unveiling a new show horse, Johann pushed open the large barn door and proudly stood aside to show Stefan his creation.
“What’s that, Revered?” Stefan said.
“Help me move it into the classroom,” Johann said as he motioned to Stefan to help lift the heavy candle invention. As they shuffled their way through the snow toward the school, Johann explained to Stefan the purpose of the red, daily candles, and the white-cream Sunday candles and how they will help the students, including Stefan’s son, anticipate the coming celebration of Christmas. Johann chose to keep his ulterior motive to himself.
Kicking open the door to the school, Johann and Stefan, still shuffling, pushed through the little desks with the candle wheel. Several desks fell hard on the old wooden floor which made a booming sound within the boarding school.
“Let’s move it to the front and center,” Johann said in a loud whisper, hoping that the noise of their ruckus did not wake any of the students.
They centered the piece in the pre-dawn-lit classroom. Still huffing and puffing, Johann and Stefan stepped back, shoulder to shoulder, and admired the candle wheel.
“Marvelous,” Stefan whispered. Johann smiled and put his hand on Stefan’s shoulder.
“Okay. Let’s get these desks set up again before the school day begins.” Johann said.
Turning around, they noticed a small light coming from just inside the classroom. It was Hans, Stefan’s boy, rubbing his sleepy right eye, holding a small tin wick lamp.
Stefan glanced briefly at Johann and then stepped forward, knelt, and took Hans into his big arms.
Hans said, “we heard a noise.”
“We?” Johann said.
Slowly, the rest of the young students, still in their nightclothes, shuffled into the room, filling it with the dim light of their lamps. Johann and Stefan, who was still holding his boy, looked at each other.
“Boys, I was going to show you this today during our studies, but I guess this is as good a time as any.”
Johann and Stefan stepped aside to reveal the perfectly imperfect Christmas Candle Wheel. The children hurried around it, touching its base and outlining the hub and spokes with their fingers. The giddy atmosphere was broken when one of the boys said, “How does it work?” The others chimed in with the same refrain.
Johann chuckled, “Well. I guess I can show you now. Hans, can I borrow your lamp?” Hans handed Johann the lamp that flickers in the exchange.
“Boys, I know that you love Christmas. I also know that it is difficult to wait for this special day. So I created this Christmas Candle Wheel to show us when Christmas arrives. Each weekday, we’ll light one of the red candles and add another every day afterward.”
“What about the nice white ones?” One boy asked.
“Those are different because we light those on Sunday – our special day of worship and prayer,” Johann said.
“Let’s light them now!” Hans squealed which encouraged all of the boys to join the chorus.”
Stefan put up his hand to silence the students. “No, no. Reverend will light then one at a time, starting today.”
“It’s okay, Stefan,” Johann interrupted. “I’ll light all of them right now to show you what it will look like in a few weeks. But we need to remember that this is only a tool to help us remember why we celebrate Christmas.”
“Like a hammer?” Hans said.
Johann chuckled, “Not quite like that. The wheel reminds us that it is a time to thank God for the grace that he has given the whole world and the forgiveness he offers through the baby Jesus. I’ll light the wheel now but I want one of you to read part of the Christmas story.
Karl, the smallest boy, born with a clubbed foot, shuffled through the group. “I’ll read it.”
“That would be appreciated, Karl,” Johann said.
Johann nodded to Stefan who helped Karl turn to Luke chapter 2. Another boy moved his lamp toward the pages so Karl could read, as best he could, from Luke 2.
As Johann began lighting the candles for the very first time, Karl began reading:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Karl finished reading and looked up, joining the other boys with amazement. The Candle Wheel was fully lit and illuminated the room with the warm glow of the advent season.
After a long moment of stunned silence, Hans, whose heart was overflowing with excitement said,
“So since all of the candles are lit, is today Christmas?”
The whole room erupted in joyous, Christmas laughter.
In the years following, Pastor Johann added daily Bible verses that the students would read and he’d ask them, as part of their lesson, what they thought the verse meant. Singing a hymn, closing in prayer and the daily devotion was complete.
News of Johanns Christmas Candle Wheel spread as Stefan, now ordained as a deacon, shared the story with other pastors and parishioners around Germany.
By the 1860s, many added pine branches to their homemade Christmas candle wheel which was now being called the Advent Wreath.
After the death of Pastor Johann Wichern in 1881, the advent wreath became adopted as a yearly ritual helping church-goers understand the beauty and anticipation of the celebration of the Christ-child. By the early 1900s, the tradition filtered over to the United States as many immigrants came to the new world. By this time, the Advent Wreath was simplified to the four candles, one being pink which represents the week of joy, and a center white, Christ candle.
As time goes on, Johann’s Christmas Candle Wheel continues to be an inspiration to so many as it points us to the celebration of God’s gift to mankind — the birth of His Son, our Saviour, Jesus the Christ.