Welcome to December 21, the shortest day and longest night of 2023. Cultures from pre-contact Mesoamerica to the spruce stands of Finland marked this moment with fire, whether torching symbolic figures as the old year dies or bringing a flame to glow indoors as we enter winter’s icy heart.
On Queensberry Road in East Pasadena, the season’s light burns brightly in the form of handmade lawn ornaments in the shape of a red-and-white-striped candle. Sawed from a sheet of raw lumber, painted with enamel gloss, and bolted to a simple spike, the candles begin to appear at the curb every year on Queensberry right after Thanksgiving, as they have for decades.
Aaron Case grew up on Queensberry in the home originally purchased by his grandmother, Grace Butler, in 1971. Today, the home belongs to Aaron and his wife, Coco. The pair were high school sweethearts who met at Arcadia High and married in 2017. They moved in in 2020.
“My grandmother loved this house and loved decorating for Christmas,” recalls Aaron. “She took so much pride in being the first house to get her candle out on the lawn. That really started the holiday season for us.”
When Dipti Patel and her husband, Tim Lopez, bought their Queensberry house across the street in 2016, they didn’t have a family legacy to inform them about the mysterious wooden candle they discovered in their garage. “We were so curious when we first saw it,” says Dipti. “We wondered what it meant, and then at Christmas, we saw the same candles popping up on the lawns up and down Queensberry. So we put ours out, too, and it’s so special. Ours is the only block that does this!” Dipti adds that a next-door neighbor gifted them with another candle, “…and that made us feel so welcome here.”
Longer-time residents of Queensberry fondly recall the source of the candles: Kermit I. Pederson, who lived on the block with his wife Vivian until his death from cancer in 2012 at the age of 82. The Pedersons had moved to Pasadena in 1962 when Kermit accepted a position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
One neighbor, who asks to remain anonymous, bought her house on Queensberry in 1995 as her son entered kindergarten. She recalls, “Kermit was retired from JPL and made the candles in his garage. I’m not sure what motivated him to do that, but it was such a lovely gesture and tradition. I think we paid $5 for them – which I’m sure barely covered the cost of materials. We all used to put the candles out near the curb so they were all in line down the block. I’m actually not sure if he knew that he was sick when he started the project. But after he died, they really served as a memorial to him.”
Another neighbor a few doors to the east unearthed a flyer for Kermit’s candles dated 2006, when the price of candles jumped from $5 to $8. She commented, “I think he just really enjoyed making things from wood, and he liked visiting and talking to the folks on the block. He was always watching out for people.”
In our age of brain-boggling, high-tech digital holiday displays, Kermit’s candles seem homespun to the point of anachronism. Although he literally worked with NASA, perhaps in retirement, the artist resonated with the simpler times of his childhood in the 1930s on a North Dakota farm.
In Southern California, life imitates art. Queensberry Road could be the prettiest block in America, bearing an almost unnerving resemblance to a Hollywood soundstage set of an idyllic suburban neighborhood, even though cats—meaning coyote-bait housecats and catalytic convertors—routinely disappear here in the pre-dawn darkness, when you can usually hear a pin drop. Overnight street parking is prohibited, keeping the wide street’s gracious, open look. City-planted Chinese sycamores line the curbs, casting dappled shadows over the dewy lawns.
A decade and more ago, expertly choreographed group trick-or-treat outings were organized here every Halloween and a pink ice cream truck called The Ice Princess did a slow, jingly roll through the summer streets. As the neighborhood has aged, those traditions have, for the moment, dissipated. Only the candles remain.
While the candy cane-striped ornaments indeed stand as a tribute to their creator, some Queensberry residents have an even more personal reason for placing them on the lawn as the old year winds down.
Aaron Case said, “My grandmother’s house was a great one for us kids since, at the time, ours was one of the few houses on the block with a pool. So now we put our candle out to give thanks to my grandmother Grace and to honor her memory.” Aaron, an Air Force recruiter, and his wife Coco, a wedding planner, returned to Queensberry after a three-and-a-half-year stint in Tokyo. Aaron shakes his head at how fast neighbors’ children have grown up in his absence.
“Now it’s full circle for us to be here, on this block, in this house,” adding that he and Coco will welcome their first child, a daughter, into the world on January 9, 2024.
Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.