Wednesday, December 1, 2021

December and the Magic of Light



We have all gotten used to the end of Daylight Savings Time by now. We are getting up later without complaint, adjusting to the longer hours of darkness, and are heading into the final month of our year ready to celebrate, even as so much around us has changed in the past two years. We are in December, and despite its longer hours of darkness, December is for most people a time of joyous celebration.  There are so many celebrations from so many religious and ethnic traditions taking place during this month that almost no week in his month is free of holy ritual and observance somewhere in the world. 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. There is 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 this month as well. In fact, what many of us think of as parts of traditional Christmas celebrations- the Christmas tree and the story of the 3 Wise Men- actually have their roots in the pre- Christian Wiccan and Persian traditions. It is December, winter is coming, and we are on the threshold of a very “ritual-rich” time period.

What so many of our winter observances have in common is the prominence of light. Candles, bonfires, logs, electric lights, tree lights-light is the common element, metaphor and symbol seen world-wide at this time of the year.  And it makes perfect sense; in much of the world this time of the year means noticeable changes in the amount of daylight and darkness surrounding us, and as humans, 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, and that what we call “the winter solstice” would be here again. So days leading up to or after the solstice 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 around the planet depending upon geography and culture. 

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 winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, to days of more and more hours of sunlight. To the ancient Persians winter 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 fires. Sol Invictus, the all-powerful Roman sun god, was also celebrated in December with torches and bonfires.  It is a timeless and universal process; 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, so in our rituals fire-light-abounded.                 

New beginnings are also important in most religious traditions. 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 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 a reawakened connection and awareness of African values and traditions for people of African descent. It is a rebirth of a connection. 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 of 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.    

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