Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Magic of December Nights

December Skies:
    I have been spending parts of several evenings since Daylight Savings Time ended standing outside at about 8PM and looking up at the southwest part of the sky. It gets dark noticeably earlier now, and I am unabashedly in love with December and winter skies. The moon has gone through several phases over the last weeks, and it seems so powerful and quietly majestic up there, particularly when there is that seeming haze and shadow surrounding it. The stars seem brighter and more dramatic against the deeper and darker blues that characterize the night sky at this time of the year. The constellations seem clearer and larger. At times like this I think much more about light and dark-about how those two concepts so clearly manifest themselves as winter draws closer. As Christmas lights and candles appear on porches, houses and streets and trees and store windows I am once again awakened to the importance of light to us humans, particularly now. It is quietly wonderful. I remembered a piece about light several years ago, and I thought I would dig it out and share it again...
Let There Be Light:
   December is a month overflowing with observances and ritual. There are so many celebrations from so many different religious and ethnic traditions from around the world taking place during this month. There is, of course, Christmas and the various minor celebrations leading up to and associated with it: Advent, the 12 Days of Christmas, Yule, and others depending on your ethnicity, culture, and religious tradition. There is also Hanukkah with its 8 days of oil-based food, candles, and dreidel playing, and Kwanzaa with its celebration of Pan-African culture, candles, 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. What so many of these celebrations and observances have in common is the prominence of light in their observances. 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 our rituals bring that home.
 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 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 leading to and just after the solstice 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 was a strong metaphor for that. Our language today shows that it still is. We speak of, “seeing the light, or “coming into the light.” There is the “inner light,” and we also “let our light shine.”  We use light as a symbol for transformation and rebirth, and these qualities are readily spoken of and alluded to in many of the rituals and ceremonies that occur 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 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 long ago when we first figured out what the solstice was 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 connections 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. That means we are still connected to our ancestors 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 thinking on the links between what we do now and what we as a species have always done. And I hope you can spend some evening time outside looking up and taking some time to marvel at what is going on up there. 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 however you celebrate it.  And enjoy the solstice. Let there be light and let it be good.