Column: Christmas Fire

A Christmas Eve excursion to Manchester, Michigan

When it is dark, when it is cold, that is the time of year when we spark a fire we hope will burn through the next year, and even though it never does, hope smolders still.

Luminary on Main Street Manchester, Michigan

Manchester Luminaria 2013. (Main Street Manchester, Michigan)

In the history of the human species, I imagine that surely dozens or even hundreds of words have already been written about the special magic of fire. So I will add a few of my own.

I grew up in a small town in southern Indiana a few houses down from a family that went all in for outdoor Christmas light displays – the kind that every year other people drove into our neighborhood to see. Whatever you might think of such displays, it’s uncontroversial that they bear witness to the intervention of a human hand: Some person went to the trouble to string those wires and screw in all those little tiny bulbs.

In Manchester, Michigan – a village in the corner of Washtenaw County, about 25 miles southwest of Ann Arbor – electric Christmas light displays coexist peacefully with candles. This year marks the 34th year of the Manchester Luminaria – a community tradition that involves placing candles inside paper bags weighted with sand, spaced evenly along the street. Residents who participate in the tradition purchase enough bags to line the street frontage of their property. The candles are lit at dusk on Christmas Eve.

I learned about this tradition because last week The Manchester Mirror reported that sales of the sand-filled bags with candles would begin from the vacant building on the northwestern corner of Manchester’s Main Street and M-52.

So how is a paper bag, lit from within by a candle, different from an electric light display? It isn’t the mere imprint of a human hand, because that much they have in common. But a glowing paper bag filled with fire bears witness to a certain immediacy of that human intervention: Some person only very recently set that candle aflame.

And if you let your eye wander down that line of evenly-spaced luminary bags, counting them off as you go, your gaze might land on one where there’s a human figure still crouched over it applying a miniature torch to the candle.  And when you see a series of a dozen unlit luminary bags, a dark segment wedged into the light, you can stand and wait, and know that a person will emerge to light those candles.

In the Manchester Luminaria, you can see the imprint of a human hand in a way that is far more visceral than in an electric light display.

I wish I had a more visceral way to convey traditional seasons greetings to Chronicle readers. But all I have is the electric light display that we call the Internet. In that spirit, I’d like to wish Chronicle readers a merry Christmas, happy holidays and a happy new year.

After the break are some additional photos from a Christmas Eve excursion to Manchester.

From the corner of Main Street and M-52 in Manchester, Michigan looking north

From the corner of Main Street and M-52 in Manchester, Michigan looking north.

Line of luminaries on Main Street, Manchester, Michigan

Line of luminaries on Main Street, Manchester, Michigan.

Main Street, Manchester, Michigan

Main Street, Manchester, Michigan.

Sidestreet off Main in Manchester, Michigan

Side street off Main in Manchester, Michigan.

Main Street Manchester, Michigan

Main Street in Manchester, Michigan.


  1. By johnboy
    December 24, 2013 at 11:11 pm | permalink

    I hope you took Pleasant Lake Road to Manchester. Between Pleasant Lake and M-52 some blessed soul(s) puts out over 2 miles of Luminaria on an otherwise empty road. Very beautiful. Fun to drive through and turn your headlights off (not running lights and only for a few seconds). Dexter also does a good job decorating with Luminaria. MLive has a nice photo gallery of Luminaria in Superior Township. [link]

  2. December 25, 2013 at 3:09 pm | permalink

    I would argue that one reason the luminaria are lovely is that they are evanescent and not mechanical. They appear only for a short time and then are gone, unlike the lavish electric light displays seen most places. “On this one special night of the year.”

    I’ve noticed that some of my neighbors leave outside holiday lights on for a long time, into the spring in some cases. In my opinion this diminishes their effectiveness. The senses get jaded.

    However, I must go down Brooks soon to see the (lighted) flying pig. Hope he is there this year.

  3. December 25, 2013 at 5:41 pm | permalink

    Thank you!! Glad you enjoyed your visit! Come on back anytime… :-)

  4. By Barry Allen
    December 27, 2013 at 9:16 am | permalink

    Thank you for a great article that catches the essence of why we do luminaria each Christmas Eve. The Manchester Lions Club has hosted this community service project for the last several years in hopes of bringing peace and light to the world. The display can only be accomplished by the participation of the residents of the village, so thank you to all for your contribution to this effort.

  5. By Patty Swaney
    December 31, 2013 at 11:13 am | permalink

    After we moved out into the country, the luminaria was one of the townie traditions that we missed most. Many Christmas after me moved from the heart of Manchester, I still would buy the “kits” of bags and candles and sand, only I’d have to buy many more to luminate just a portion of our drive!

    In town, lighting the candles as evening approached could be the only time all winter that you would actually see and talk with your neighbors. It was their inspiration and encouragement that made the event fun even on the coldest, windiest, wettest nights. Neighbors would buy the kits for shut-ins and would take turns re-lighting the dark bags.

    We have lost the enthusiasm for doing luminaries out in the country but the enjoyment of the drive through town on Christmas Eve and the memories of life in the village give me another sense of appreciation for our community. And I am thankful to be able to say so in the Chronicle and the Mirror!