Let there be light seems to be the mantra of the month of December, no matter what culture, religion, or even time period you look at. It’s a time when human-kind looks out into nature’s ever-increasing darkness and, instead of feeling hopeless, attempts to bring light back into their lives. Over the years I’ve participated in some of these illuminating ceremonies. While the religious sources varied, all of them shared elements of hope, peace, and promise. And isn’t that what we need when faced with any form of darkness, be it physical, spiritual or emotional?
I was raised Catholic and lighting the Advent wreath was one of our Christmas rituals. The evergreen wreath held four candles representing the four weeks of Advent, the time preceding the birth of the Christ child. One candle was lit the first week, slightly illuminating the kitchen table on which it sat. The second week we lit two candles, the third week three candles, and by the fourth week, the entire wreath was lit, casting a warm glow.
The wreath’s significance was lost on me as a child because I was really using it as a gauge as to how close it was getting to Santa’s arrival. I’m grateful that my mother carried this tradition into our home, even though it took many years for me to appreciate the significance of the light.
Every December my kitchen table also houses the Advent wreath. When my children were younger, the ritual was sometimes challenged by arguments over whose turn it was to light the candles or to select the religious Christmas carol we would sing after the lighting. I learned to defuse the situation by singing (often through gritted teeth) above the bickering, guiding the small hand of one of the girls to light the candle.
When the girls were in elementary school they were introduced to Hanukkah, the Jewish eight-day festival of lights. They were enthralled by the menorah, dreidel, and gelt. Our good friends who lived across the street were Jewish and every year they welcomed us into their home to light the candles in the menorah (and of course, spin the dreidel). They were incrementally bringing light to the darkness much like we were doing with our Advent wreath.
A few weeks ago I went to my first Diwali festival. I had never heard of Diwali, the five-day Hindu celebration of lights, until I started attending programs at my local meditation center. I was mesmerized by the dancer wrapped in cream-colored fabric threaded with strands of gold, bells tied around her ankles. If I squinted my eyes, she blurred into the strands of white lights that draped the stage. At the end of the celebration we lit the candles that were handed to us when we entered the building, the dark space illuminated by the flicker of tea lights, all of us united.
The ceremonies associated with Advent, Hanukkah and Diwali in which I participated all happen around the time of the winter solstice, what we in the Northern Hemisphere consider the “shortest” or darkest day of the year – the start of winter. This day, December 21, celebrates light, as the “darkest” period is ending and what is on schedule is a gradual lengthening of daylight hours until the natural process is reversed at the time of the summer solstice in June.
The location most associated with the marking of the winter solstice is Stonehenge in England. While I never participated in a solstice ritual at the site, my husband and I visited Stonehenge on our honeymoon, taking a shuttle from Bath to the Salisbury Plain. Driving along the English countryside, without a hint of notice, we suddenly found ourselves staring at Stonehenge in the near distance. I expected signs altering me to Stonehenge in 10 miles, Stonehenge in five miles, last stop for food before Stonehenge. But that’s the American in me, I guess.
I was humbled standing near the outer circle of stones of the much described, debated, photographed, and documented Stonehenge. It was much smaller than I imagined; while the stones were huge, the space itself was dwarfed by the landscape. And all was silent – just the wind blowing across the Plain.
We tourists walked quietly around the structure, posing for our pictures. I imagined people, thousands of years earlier, gathering at this very site for their winter solstice ritual, watching for the first glimpses of the life-giving sun through the concentric stone circles.
Whatever traditions you celebrate at this time of year, may your life be lit by the light of love and hope, may your spirit be a light to someone in darkness, and may your heart by merry and light. Blessings.
Tell me about your light-filled stories!