Christmas Eve Light Memory


Much of my youth was spent living in government quarters on Army posts. The quarters (houses) were all quite similar because they had all been built as part of the Works Progress Administration projects. The red brick was quite uniform. Walk down into the basement and you found exposed I-beams reading “Carnegie Steel.” Each post had several chapels. Of course, one of these would be designated “Main Post Chapel.” Main Post Chapel is the setting of a Christmas Eve memory.

Main Post Chapel at Fort Lewis Washington is an elegant red brick building overlooking the main parade field, lined with carefully pruned evergreen trees. Broad steps lead up to large solid wood doors opening into the chapel interior. There are tall stained glass window and a high peaked ceiling. The chapel is the setting for multiple services, both Catholic and Protestant. On Christmas Eve, this chapel was the setting of a long military tradition, a late evening service.

For decades, this special service was packed with military families, all dress in their finest. The officers and senior enlisted were all in their dress blue uniforms, think black tie, with a few junior sergeants and privates in their issued dress greens, the equivalent of a business suit. The service consisted mostly of Christmas hymns and carols, supported by a pipe organ and piano. The pipe organ was built in 1934, a Reuter Organ Co. Opus 452.

fort lewis main post chapel interiorYou came in out of the dark winter night, occasionally snowy, more often rainy (this was the Pacific Northwest), entering the lighted chapel decorated with greens and poinsettias. As you entered, you were handed a program for the service and a small candle with paper drip guard. As the service was reaching its conclusion, the lights were turned out and officiants in vestments lit candlelighters from the Christ candle on the Advent candle holder. The lights were carried down the center aisle, row by row.

Now, every year, immediately before this part of the service, the officiating chaplain would make the same plea. We are, after all, talking about a hundred or more open candle flames. “As you pass the light, please do not tilt the lit candle, only tilt the unlit candle to receive the light.” This was, after all, a military building, limited in its renovation and maintenance budget. The carpet had to last, and dripped candle wax all through the chapel just would not do.

Being a military congregation, right down to military kids, there was near universal compliance. Row by row brightened with candlelight until the whole chapel glowed in a warm light. As I remember, we filed out row by row, extinguishing the candles as we exited the sanctuary, our family driving home, just around the parade field, to Christmas tree lights and the scent of bayberry candles.

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  1. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    This post about a post chapel memory is part of our December theme: “Winter Lights and Dark Winter Nights.” We have several open days left. Stop by today to reserve a day.

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  2. KentForrester Coolidge

    Very nice, Clifford.  I could clearly see the scene you described while I read your post. 

    I was stationed in Fort Lewis for nine months during 1961.  It’s a handsome post outside of the barracks section, largely because the post sits in the middle of a forest.  

    I wasn’t as lucky as you. I slept in a barracks with about thirty or forty other enlisted men, most of whom snored through the night.  

    It’s now called Joint Base Lewis-McChord.  I pass it by, and grow nostalgic, every time I drive from Portland to Tacoma to visit the grands. 

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  3. Manny Member

    Nice post. I enjoyed reading it. Christmas provides everyone with joyful memories. 

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  4. Quietpi Member

    This may be more legend than truth, but it does fit what I witnessed.  I’ve been told that General John “Blackjack” Pershing oversaw the construction of many Army posts that survive to this day, or at least did until The Great Deactivation in, what was it, the ’80’s?

    Most of the buildings on these then – new posts were either intended to be temporary, stop-gap structures, or left in inhabitable, but incomplete condition – interior walls were left open, with the studs providing a certain, charming ambience for the enlisted soldiers and junior NCO’s, until, I suppose, time and money became available – which of course, never happened.  Except for the chapels.  Pershing ordered that the chapels were to be built first, and were to be complete, permanent structures.

    And so it was when I entered the military.  A reservist, I spent my active duty time mostly at old posts, like, “beautiful, downtown Camp Roberts, California.”  The barracks were just as they had been built.  Many had been restored to the point of being more or less usable, during the buildup of the Vietnam era, but just barely.  Other post facilities were in the same barely – usable condition.  Except the chapels.  Most of them were run down, too, but having been properly built in the first place, even the ones that had been neglected for decades were in better shape than the barracks.  And at least one was kept up and usable.  And when a real effort to return some of the old structures to workable condition and finish the work, like closing the walls, etc.  the chapels came first.

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  5. Stad Coolidge

    Nice . . .

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