Monday, December 3, 2018

An Ode to Light

DUKES FANS:

 (We have had a lot of rain and grey days these last few weeks, and frankly, they have had me somewhat depressed. I am an early morning person, and most times waking up to misty fog and the sound of rain is pleasant to me; it almost feels like a movie set or a set piece in a piece of dramatic fiction. But of late, I have just been tired of it. It has been bringing me down and I am tired of it. While I am fortunately not afflicted with it, I can understand why SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a real thing. Humans need light, and lately I am missing it.

To that end, I remembered a newsletter I sent out way back in 2014 about December, celebrations, and light. Reading it helped lift my mood, so I thought I would send it out again, lightly edited, in the week that starts the Hanukkah celebration. Consider it an ode to light.)

Let There Be Lights:

December is the time of many celebrations. There is, of course, Christmas and the minor celebrations leading up to it and associated with it, including Advent, the 12 Days of Christmas, Yule, and others depending on your ethnicity and your religious tradition. There is also Hanukkah with its 8 days of oil based food and dreidel playing, and Kwanzaa with its celebration of Pan-African culture and values. And if you are Buddhist, Hopi, Hindu, traditional Persian, Wiccan, or West African Dogon, there are celebrations for you as well during this month. In fact, what many of us think of as elements of traditional Christmas celebrations actually have their roots in the Wiccan and Persian traditions. And there are many other celebrations from many other different religious and ethnic traditions from around the world taking place during this month. December is a month rich with observances, rituals and celebrations. What so many of these celebrations and observances have in common is the prominence of light in the ceremonies. Candles, bonfires, logs, electric lights, tree lights, flashing lights-light is the common element, metaphor and symbol worldwide at this time of the year. We need and must celebrate light.

It make perfect sense that humans are so light conscious in December. Humans look to nature to try to figure out what is coming and what God or the gods have in store for us. For most of our history that has meant looking to the sky-to the sun, the moon and the stars. Humans have known for centuries that the length of the days was changing at this time of the year and that the winter solstice was coming. This became a time of deep spiritual meaning for early humans, and it was marked in many different ways depending upon geography and culture. As the length of the days shortened and then magically, slowly increased, it was as if the earth was being reborn and we were living through and witnessing that process. We had to acknowledge it and honor it, else it may not happen again. So symbolically, many cultures created rituals that recognized it as a time of rebirth. Many of the stories, myths and traditions from different times and places began to associate this time with miraculous births, enlightenment, miracles, and/or new beginnings. The Druid bonfires and the Germanic and Norse Yule logs, for example, were symbolic and metaphoric symbols of cleansing, sacrifice, and the simultaneous death and rebirth of the earth-from the shortest day of the year to gradually more and more hours of sunlight. To the ancient Persians this was the time of the Yalda festival, and Mithras, the symbol of truth, strength, goodness and light, was born to a virgin mother at this time of the year. His birth was celebrated with flame and holy fire. Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god, was also celebrated at this time. We humans even long ago seemed to know that we had to meet the darkness with light. 

New beginnings are important in most religious traditions, and light is a strong metaphor for that. Our language shows that it still is. We speak of “seeing the light, or “coming into the light.” There is the “inner light and we “let our light shine.”  Transformation and rebirth are readily spoken of and alluded to in so many of the rituals and ceremonies in our religions, especially at this time of the year. Hanukkah is about rebirth and new beginnings as it celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem from its desecration when Antiochus made it into a Greek temple. The candles symbolize, in part, the rebirth of the religion. The candles in Kwanzaa symbolize the reawakened connection and awareness of African values and connections for people of African descent. To Buddhists, Bodhi Day in December celebrates the Buddha becoming a Buddha-an “enlightened” one who suddenly could see beyond illusion. To Christians, the Star of Bethlehem symbolically led to a new beginning for humans, as it led the Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus. In all these traditions, light was symbolically leading us forward.

And light is as powerful today to us humans as it was when we first figured out the solstice and what it could mean. Tradition has it that Martin Luther saw stars one night as he was composing a sermon and tried to capture their beauty by adding lighted candles to the Christmas tree inside his house. Whether that is true or not, by the time the Germanic tradition of the Christmas tree reached the US the idea of lights were a fixture.  And now there are lighted houses, malls, streets, yards, shops and more. We are awash in lights; there are even whole streets and neighborhoods that collaborate to plan what their light scheme is going to be each holiday season. And many families now have a tradition of driving to visit different neighborhoods just to see the light displays.

So our ancient connection to the rhythms and structures of the natural world are in some ways still with us, even if we do not recognize them as such. As up to date and modern as we are in this digital age, we are still human, and that means we are still connected to our ancestors and their beliefs in some important and primal ways. As we celebrate our various rituals, traditions and personal rituals this season, I hope you can spend some time outside looking up and taking some time to marvel at what is going on up there. The sun, the moon, the constellations: it is quite miraculous, and it still influences so much of what we do down here. Do have a safe, warm, happy, love and light filled holiday season.  Enjoy the magic of light.