A twenty-seven-year-old worldwide Christmas tradition from Austria is due to be repeated later this month. Here in the UK, Bedfordshire is one of the main hubs. The Bethlehem Peace Light, direct from Christ’s Grotto, will be bringing its annual glow of Christmas magic to communities all round the UK and the rest of the world. All of this is organised by Scouts in over fifty countries. All Scouts are Messengers of Peace in their own countries and across the world.
Since 1988 Austrian Scouts and Guides, called Pathfinders in their home country, have collected the annual Peace Light from Christ’s Grotto in Bethlehem to distribute to churches, children’s hospices, prisons, community centres and private homes all over their home country. It started a year earlier as a campaign by the Austrian State Broadcaster ORF to bring comfort and support for handicapped children and people in need and was backed by an enormous fund raising event on state television on Christmas Eve. The light even was distributed to Eastern Europe before communism broke down in these countries.
In 1995, with support from British Rail Scout Peter Sharples of Bedford, the Scouts opened the campaign to the UK and Europe and within five years it had become a world-wide crusade. It was present when the Berlin wall came down in 1989 and became a poignant reminder of peace in the devastation of New York’s World Trade Centre in 2001. Today it stretches to well over 50 countries and millions of homes and community centres.
Each year a Peace Child is chosen in Austria to go to Christ’s Grotto in Bethlehem where the light is lit. It never goes out. On return to Vienna, a special service commemorates the coming of the light and the mammoth distribution task begins involving thousands of Scouts.
One grateful missionary called Connie Patty who lives with her husband Dave in the Czech Republic said,
“My good neighbour Pavlina brought the peace light gift to our house last Christmas but I had no idea what it was. I must say the story is truly remarkable. What a beautiful tradition! And what a blessing to have it come to our house today.”
In the UK the light, in its special blast proof lantern, will arrive at Dover on 15 December and from there Deep Sea and British Rail Scouts transport it to centres around the country. One of the first will be Bedfordshire from where the light will travel to outposts in the North, to Scotland and to Ireland.
Masterminding the operation is Mike Jarman from Luton Scouts who took over the role from Peter Sharples who sadly died last year. Peter’s widow, Sheila is determined to carry on the 18-year old tradition from the home they shared in the Woodside District of Bedford. One of their favourite destinations for the light is the parish church in Soham where 10-year old Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman tragically died in 2002.
Apart from a service in Luton’s All Saints Church on 16 December at 7.30pm, the Italian church, Santa Francesca Cabrini in Bedford is expected to take part. And on Christmas Eve at 5pm The Revd James Reveley, Vicar of St Andrew’s in Bedford, will combine a Peace Light celebration with a carol service.
The Austrians seem to have cornered the market on Christmas traditions. In the days of the Austrian Empire, which stretched as far as Turkey and parts of Russia, they introduced the first Christmas tree in the market square in Riga the capital of Latvia. It was in 1510 according to a commemorative stone plaque in the square. Some years later, so the story goes, Martin Luther took a day off from being a Puritan to cover the tree in decorative candle lights.
Earlier, in the 4th Century in what is now Turkey, St Nicholas lived. He spent his life saving falling maidens and distributing secret gifts to the poor and needy. He became the patron saint of children and today is better known as Santa Claus.
The Austrians didn’t invent carols but they did give us ‘Silent Night’ as a contribution from Salzburg in 1818. We now have letters to Santa at the North Pole, Post Code H0H0H0 would you believe? In the UK the letters go to Reindeerland, Post Code XM4 5HQ. And just to cap it all, the North American Aerospace Defense Command tracks Santa on his travels via their NORAD space station satellite. You can tune in to the station from 1st December at www.noradsanta.org.