It’s funny how quickly we grow accustomed to new things. As a child, every evening was lit by candlelight, or the soft glow of the paraffin lamp, or the steady flame of gas jets set into the walls. Now we live in a world of modern conveniences: hot and cold running water, an Aga, incandescent bulbs. I can plug my iron into the light socket and work my way straight through a pile of sheets without stopping once to change it for another, heating on the range. I can turn the wireless on with the flick of a switch. Everything is clean, bright, and easy. And as a result, our walls are painted in soft greens and creams, and stay unsullied by soot.
Yet we fall into the old ways quickly, too. Heating a pan of water on the edge of the stove, for washing up in. Splitting rain-damp logs down the middle to expose their seasoned cores. Lighting candles as the sun slips quickly away, and remembering why the walls are painted white. Recalling other candlelit nights, when we didn’t all have power all the time. And other people, who still don’t have it now.
There are so many ways to pass a candlelit evening. The black letters of scrabble stand out well against the milky tiles. It is easy to distinguish between the red and black suits of cards. There is cooking to be done, and eating, too. You can knit, bringing the wool close to the flame only when a colour change is called for, for the blues and greens are hard to tell apart. And the evenings are shorter, too, the gentle light letting you feel how tired you are, and sending you to your bed. I love a candlelit evening, now and then.
But you can’t do many tasks, by candlelight. You can’t read much, without straining your eyes. You can’t work your way through a pile of mending or a set of accounts with any ease. Candlelight keeps people in the dark, to some extent. Paraffin lamps are pretty, but they smoke, and damage your chest. And the walls need whitewashing afresh each spring.
Given the choice, I’d opt for a candlelit holiday any day. I’d even go for a full candlelit summer. But in the winter, when the nights are long and there is much close work to be done, it is another story. It was fun, teaching the children all this. Showing them how to hang the sconces high up on the walls. Dividing the wax candles by the number of nights ahead. Getting some tasks done before dusk fell, and saving others for the darkness. It was a glad lesson, and an important one, to be had by candlelight.