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Celebrations of Light

December 26, 2016

December’s darkness brings again the light of Christmas morn.   (Norval Clyne, “The Blasts of Chill December”)

Christmas tree 2017In the northern hemisphere, we celebrated the winter solstice this  past week. The solstice marks the shortest day of the year, the longest night, and the official beginning of winter. The winter solstice also marks the return of light, as days begin to lengthen again.

For millennia, human societies have found ways to celebrate light at this season. Bonfires, fireworks, candles, luminaria, and displays of electric lights are all especially beautiful against the backdrop of winter dark. My favorite episode of the 1990s television series Northern Exposure is the one from season 4 called “Northern Lights,” which ends as townspeople gather in the dark of the winter solstice to see the lighting of an amazing outdoor sculpture that Chris Stevens has made from discarded lamps, light bulbs, etc.

This week also brought two major religious celebrations of light. The Jewish holiday of Chanukah (or Hanukkah) celebrates a miracle of light, when one day’s worth of oil for the Menorah miraculously lasted eight days. The celebration involves the lighting of candles on a Menorah, with more candles added each day, a celebration of  increasing light that is very much in concert with the winter solstice. The Christian holiday of Christmas is symbolically linked to light by the idea of Christ as “the light of the world” and by the story of the exceptionally bright star that lit the night sky and led the three Wise Men to the newborn baby. Light displays, especially lighted Christmas trees and strings of colored lights in outdoor spaces, are an important part of the celebration of Christmas in the United States. The confluence of all these celebrations of light is not a coincidence. In the case of Christmas, there is no evidence that the historical Jesus was born in late December. More likely, early Christian leaders linked the celebration of Christ’s birth to existing celebrations of light in  a kind of “if you can’t lick them, join them” strategy.

Some of my friends suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder and are delighted to get beyond the winter solstice and celebrate the return of light. I actually like the reduced light of winter – the velvety nights, the star-filled skies, the ethereal glow of moonlight on new-fallen snow, that special deep blue of the twilight sky on a winter afternoon. But I also enjoy the artificial lights of the season. Each year, I install a light-spangled Christmas tree in my living room. As I drive around the countryside doing errands and Christmas shopping, I enjoy the light-filled outdoor displays at homes along the road. There are also more formal light displays to be enjoyed. When I was a child, a local religious shrine was known for its Christmas light display. At some point during the holidays, we would all pile in the car and join the line of traffic snaking through local roads to see the light display. For the past two years the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has attracted tens of thousands of visitors to its display of holiday lights, “Gardens Aglow.” The season of darkness is filled with celebrations of light.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. December 26, 2016 9:27 pm

    I love midwinter… Dark nights, warm fires, candles! Oh, and Christmas!!! I hope you had a merry one.

    (Though tonight Denmark is in the grip of a storm with hurricane-force gusts, and flood risks for certain areas including the Summer House in the previous Flâneur Garden… While I’m sitting in front of a warm fire, my ex-husband is on night-watch duty by his Summer House as the water in the fjord is rising. He’s a sensible man so he’ll stay safe – but I do hope the house will be safe as well. The water is by now 8″ beneath the top of the dike and still rising, projected to peak 3 hours from now…)

    • January 1, 2017 9:54 pm

      Soren, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas. Did your ex-husband escape flood damage? (I remember how heartbreaking the previous flood at the summer house was for you.) Happy New Year.

      • January 2, 2017 12:05 pm

        The fjord rose to within less than an inch of the top of the sandbags piled along the top of the dike, so from around 4am to 6am it was touch-and-go. There was some seepage, but nothing that damaged any houses in the little area. (Gosh; I’m getting all emotional just thinking about it…)

        And Christmas was a wonderfully informal evening with my mother, my brother and his family in a tiny holiday home, followed by a Christmas Day visit to my grandmother in the nursing home.

  2. December 27, 2016 5:54 am

    Hello Jean, I can just about deal with the very short days of winter if we have clear skies, sun and crisp cold weather. The plants prefer that too. It’s when it turns dull, overcast, dim, wet and grey that I long for summer days. While sometimes I prefer to be snuggled up inside, sheltered against the cold, other times, I just go stir-crazy and want to be out in the garden doing *something* other than waiting for a spring that is still months away.

    • January 1, 2017 9:58 pm

      Sunil, You have considerably shorter days in mid-winter than we do here. I am actually a little south of the 45the parallel, so just a tiny bit closer to the equator than to the north pole. Fortunately, although we have cold, snowy winters, we also have lots of blue skies and sunshine. And snow cover (which we already have lots of!) actually increases the amount of reflected sunlight. Happy New Year and enjoy making plans for spring in the garden.

  3. December 27, 2016 8:28 am

    I love Christmas lights. We visited our Texas daughter and family and her neighborhood was filled with fancy outdoor lights, flashing, dripping dancing over the house, thousdands and thousands of lights. My own small Christmas tree is a more modest lightfest but when we got home it was such a joy to be welcomed by its familiar lights – and ‘historic’ ornaments.

    • January 1, 2017 10:03 pm

      Pat, I was driving home at twilight this evening after visiting a friend and enjoying the lights at houses along the rural back roads. Not as flashy as the Texas variety, but just the right amount of understated beauty for rural Maine. Happy New Year.

  4. December 27, 2016 9:06 am

    Jean, I enjoyed your description of the dark days of winter and the celebrations of the coming light. I’m one of those people with a touch of SAD. Even here in sunny South Carolina the shorter days are tough to get through for me. One of the activities I like to do to perk me up is read positive articles and stories. So, thank you for this lift of the spirit! K

    • January 1, 2017 10:09 pm

      Kathy, I hope you’re enjoying the lengthening days. Although I don’t suffer from SAD, I had some trouble adjusting to winter on the Mason-Dixon line when I first arrived there in the late ’80s. Although the days are technically longer there than in Maine, there were many more gray days, less sunshine, and less snow to reflect and magnify the sunlight. Once I was walking across campus in the rain with a colleague from the south, and I was complaining about the weather. “Think of it this way;” he said, “this could be snow.” “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” 😉

  5. December 27, 2016 9:07 am

    I also love the darkening of winter with the moon glow and twilight…we even walk when its dark to see the stars and Christmas lights. walking daily has helped keep us from feeling light deprived I think. And we light a couple of ceramic trees along with our little Christmas tree….hoping you had a wonderful Christmas, and wishing you a Happy New Year Jean!

    • January 1, 2017 10:12 pm

      Donna, I don’t do as well as I’d like getting out to walk in winter. Walking on rural roads without sidewalks when they are icy seems a tad too exciting. I have been getting my daylight and exercise with plenty of time snow shoveling, though. Have you gotten big snowfalls yet? Happy New Year.

  6. December 27, 2016 3:27 pm

    and the four candles from the four Sundays in Advent. Our tree will stay lit till Twelfth Night.

    • January 1, 2017 10:14 pm

      Diana, I thought of your Advent wreaths when I was writing that. The increasing number of candles from week to week seems too similar to the Chanukah menorah for it to be coincidence. Happy New Year, and enjoy your tree for a few more days.

  7. December 27, 2016 8:18 pm

    I hope you enjoyed a happy Christmas, Jean! I’m looking forward to the lengthening days – it’s not quite evident from casual observation yet but I know that one evening soon I’ll look up and notice a difference.

    • January 1, 2017 10:22 pm

      Kris, I haven’t noticed much difference in the length of day yet, either — although we’ve already gained 7 minutes since the solstice and are now adding about a minute a day. The change always seems very gradual in January, then speeds up in February and really speeds up after the spring equinox. I hope you got some of that drought relief that I’ve been seeing on the news. Happy New Year.

  8. December 29, 2016 5:09 pm

    Thank you for this beautiful entry, Jean. I know that I have a touch of Seasonally Affective Disorder in me and my spirits rise with the returning light, but I loved your description of the beauty of the subdued light–and velvety nights–of the solstice. I’m holding on to that!

    • January 1, 2017 10:26 pm

      Sarah, Next week, with luck and clear skies, you should be able to enjoy the moonlight reflected from that snow-covered lake. I’m guessing you got about the same amount of snow in your part of Auburn that we got here in East Poland. Happy New Year, and enjoy the slowly lengthening days.

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