Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Let There Be Lights


  (I originally wrote this in December, 2014. I ran into someone on the train a few days ago who remembered it, and we talked about it.  I thought I would re-run it with some modest additions and changes.)

December is the time of celebration.  There are so many celebrations from so many religious and ethnic traditions taking place during this month. There is, of course, Christmas and the minor celebrations leading up to and associated with it: Advent, the 12 Days of Christmas, Yule, and others depending on your ethnicity and specific 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, West African Dogon, traditional Persian, or Wiccan, there are celebrations for you as well. In fact, what many of us think of as parts of traditional Christmas celebrations actually have their roots in the Wiccan and Persian traditions, including the Christmas tree and the story of the 3 Wise Men. We are clearly in the midst of a universally “ritual-rich” time.
What so many of these celebrations and observances have in common is the prominence of light. Candles, bonfires, logs, electric lights, tree lights, flashing lights-light is a common element, metaphor and symbol world-wide at this time of the year.  And it makes perfect sense that humans are so light conscious in December. In much of the world this time of the year means very noticable changes in the amount of daylight and darkness surrounding us, and we have to account for that. Humans look to nature to try to figure out what is coming and what God or the gods have in store for us, and for most of our history that has meant looking to the sky.  The sun, the moon and the stars have literally and figuratively been our guideposts. Humans have known for centuries that the length of the days was changing at this time of the year, that the winter solstice would be here, and that the length of days and night would be changing. So this became a time of deep spiritual meaning for early humans.  Ritual, symbol and myth are the ways humans respond to nature,  and this became celebrated in many different ways depending upon geography and culture.

The slow increase in the length of days after the solstice was as if the earth was being reborn, and we had to acknowledge it and honor it else it may not happen again. Many cultures symbolically recognized this time of rebirth. Many of the stories, myths and traditions from different times and places associate this time of the year with miraculous births, enlightenment, miracles, and/or new beginnings. The Druid bonfires and the Germanic and Norse Yule logs, for example, were metaphoric symbols of cleansing, sacrifice, and the simultaneous death and rebirth of the earth-from the shortest day of the year to 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, emerged from a rock at this time of the year. His birth was celebrated with flame and holy fire. Sol Invictus, the all powerful Roman sun god, was also celebrated in December with torches and bonfires.  It was a timeless and universal process. Long ago we humans knew that we had to celebrate and meet this winter darkness with light.  We had to link our doings and our fates with the universe’s. We had to acknowledge this darkness, and in our rituals fire-light-abounded.               

New beginnings are also important in most religious traditions, and light is a strong metaphor for that as well. Our language today reflects this. We speak of, “seeing the light, or “coming into the light.”  We look to the “inner light and we “let our light shine.”  Light as transformation and rebirth are readily spoken of and alluded to in many of our religious rituals and ceremonies at this time of the year. Hanukkah is about rebirth and new beginnings as it celebrates, among other things, 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 reawakened connection and awareness of African values and traditions 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 led to a new beginning for humans, as it led the Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus. 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 on the trees were a fixture.  We decorated the tree, and it took off from there. Now there are lighted houses, yards, shops, malls 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. Many families now have a tradition of driving to visit different neighborhoods just to see the light displays. We need the light.

So our ancient connection to the rhythms and structures of the natural world are 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’ sense off the universe in some important and primal ways. As we celebrate our various religious rituals, traditions and personal rituals this season, I hope you can spend some time outside looking up at the night sky and taking some time to note, think about, and marvel at what is going on up there. It is quite miraculous, and it still influences so much of what we do down here. And its mystery and beauty link our present very directly to our past.
That is a wonderful and beautiful thing.

Do have a safe, warm, happy, and joyous holiday season.  I hope you find it a time full of good spirits, good company and good food.  And of course, light.