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Celebrations of Light

December 21, 2015

Christmas tree 2015In the northern hemisphere, today is the winter solstice, which is – depending on your point of view – the shortest day, the longest night, the official beginning of winter, or the date that marks the return of the sun’s light. The winter solstice has long been associated with celebrations of light. Long before early Christians decided to celebrate Christ’s birth in December, festivals of light at this time of year were already present. These included the Scandinavian practice of burning a Yule log, the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights.

Many of our northern hemisphere Christmas traditions can be traced back to pre-Christian celebrations of the winter solstice. The practice of bringing a tree into the house and decorating it for the holiday is one example. In my part of the world, the winter holidays are celebrated with strings of multi-colored lights that are used to decorate the Christmas tree indoors and buildings and trees outdoors. As I drive along country roads, coming home from Christmas shopping and errands in the late afternoon darkness, all those brightly lit houses and trees are a joyful sight.

When I was a child, a local religious shrine was known for its lavish display of outdoor lights each Christmas. Going to see those lights was part of our own holiday tradition and that of many people, causing traffic jams that snaked for miles along local roads. In some cities, there are particular neighborhoods that are renowned for their light displays and are similarly visited by long lines of cars. In Maine this year, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens are the site of a festival of lights called Gardens Aglow.


My all-time favorite winter solstice celebration of light remains a fictional one, held one year  in an episode of the 1990s television series Northern Exposure, when town disc jockey and philosopher Chris creates an enormous outdoor light sculpture to mark the season. I wish I could have found a clip to share of the magical moment when Chris lights up his sculpture.

Enjoy the celebration of light this solstice wherever and however you find it.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. Kim permalink
    December 21, 2015 10:29 pm

    Thank you, Jean! ❤

  2. December 22, 2015 1:57 am

    I’ve stationed myself by a South-Eastern window, watching the dawn creep over the fields across the road as I wait for the sunrise after the longest night of the year. Sunrise will be at 8:38AM, and I’ve been sitting by the window since 7AM, watching the flocks of geese take flight and head toward the dawn.

    Light will return to the world, and I might even suspend tradition and bring in my Christmas tree today, rather than on Christmas Eve morning, just to celebrate.

    • December 24, 2015 10:06 pm

      Soren, I love the idea of getting up to watch the sunrise. I often do that on the summer solstice. Winter darkness is more likely to make me sleep in 🙂 .

  3. Linda permalink
    December 22, 2015 8:17 am

    Your tree is gorgeous. I hate to take mine down after Christmas.

    • December 24, 2015 10:07 pm

      Thanks, Linda. I love the whole Christmas tree tradition. This year, I got mine up earlier than usual. I usually wait until after New Year’s Day to take it down — and by then it’s dropping needles and getting kind of messy, and I’m ready to be done with it.

  4. December 22, 2015 8:37 am

    I love this post, I love winter and solstice and the Xmas holidays despite all the consumerism it involves nowadays, I remain true to my idea of celebrating the holidays and forget about other stuff. I too am a big fan of Northern Exposure series, I think I have some episodes in my films archive, I’ll check if I have the one you mention and will share with you the clip. Happy Holidays!!!

    • December 24, 2015 10:10 pm

      Lula, If you look for the clip, I think it’s from the episode called “Northern Lights” from season 4. It used to be up on Youtube, but got taken down because of copyright violations. I wish this whole series was available on DVD. I would love to watch it all over again. Happy Christmas!

  5. December 22, 2015 10:07 am

    Jean, thank you for the lovely post! Your tree is beautiful. Merry Christmas and Happy Winter Solstice.

  6. December 22, 2015 1:36 pm

    I love winter solstice because it means the days are getting longer again, not big on short and dark winter days. I clicked on your blog post title in the WordPress email and got an error message. It might not be working. Happy Winter Solstice, Carolyn

    • December 24, 2015 10:14 pm

      Carolyn, I think this was a one-time problem with the email subscription. I made an error on the date when I posted this and quickly took it down to correct it — but probably not before emails went out to subscribers. If you continue to have problems, let me know.
      I hope you are enjoying this bizarrely warm holiday weather.

  7. December 22, 2015 2:58 pm

    Happy Solstice to you too Jean! I have always loved the lights this time of year….Wishing you a very Merry Christmas!

  8. December 22, 2015 7:43 pm

    I found your reference to the prevailing practice of using multi-colored lights in your part of the country interesting as, over time, I’ve noticed that white lights have become more common here, especially strings designed to emulate icicles – while people in your area appreciate the touches of color against your starker winter landscape, I expect people here are suffering from a severe case of snow envy! Happy winter solstice to you, Jean, and a very merry Christmas too!

    • December 24, 2015 10:17 pm

      Kris, There was a period about 15 years ago when those white icicle lights were popular in this part of the country, too. I think people got tired of them pretty quickly because they reminded us of the all-too-real reason for icicles hanging from the eaves of the house, ice jams. When I lived in southern California, they used to sell the Christmas trees sprayed with fake snow, sometimes in psychedelic colors (this was the late sixties). This year, we are going to have snow envy. One weather report said that Los Angeles might be colder than Maine on Christmas!

  9. December 23, 2015 11:44 am

    A magical day indeed Jean as we now journey towards the light. It’s enough to put a smile on all our faces. Season’s Greetings to you and may 2016 treat you and your garden kindly!

  10. debsgarden permalink
    December 23, 2015 1:13 pm

    Hi Jean, we are experiencing our usual winter rains and gloom. But the upside is I can keep my festive indoor and outdoor Christmas lights on through both the day and evening to cheer us all up! I love Christmas decorations, though I have not the energy or budget to go over the top like some displays I have seen. I think my favorite light display I have experienced is at Dollywood in Valley Forge, Tennessee. Magical! Have a wonderful Christmas! Deb

    • December 24, 2015 10:19 pm

      Deb, Dispelling the winter gloom is a good reason for light displays at this time of year. Enjoy them and Merry Christmas.

  11. December 25, 2015 2:59 pm

    Beautiful tree. Judy and I had been looking forward to the solstice for some time, reminding each other how the days would soon be lengthening again.

    • December 31, 2015 10:31 pm

      Jason, I trust you and Judy are enjoying the lengthening days. Although the quantity of daylight at this time of year is not great, the quality of light is often magical here.

  12. December 27, 2015 5:31 pm

    Hi Jean, I remember that Northern Exposure episode too, where Chris creates the sculpture, gathers the townsfolk and turns it on, giving a talk/speech about light. It’s still quite vivid in my mind and I can’t remember how long ago I saw it. Here’s wishing you a merry Christmas this holiday season.

    • December 31, 2015 10:33 pm

      Sunil, There seem to be quite a few of us Northern Exposure devotees out here in blogland. This was one of my favorite episodes; and, like you, I find the climatic scene is etched vividly in memory.
      Happy New Year!

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