Celebrations of Light
In 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.