Let there be light” is one of the greatest lines in the Bible, but that visual expression of hope, the piercing of light through darkness, is universal. Whether it be a comet zinging through space, the birth of a new star, the swirl of our galaxy, or the flash of a match in a tunnel a half mile deep in the earth, light plays a gladdening role no matter where it shows up.
Winter solstice is an ancient observance held on winter’s longest night to dispel fear and darkness
Long ago, as humans developed agriculture, people raised their eyes to the sky to take note of the length of day and phases of the moon, both of which played a part in their planting and harvesting of food crops. The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, was the turning point. From then on, the days would lengthen and the season of spring was on its way.
World traveler and writer Rick Steve tells tales of Viking joviality and modern celebration in “Norwegian Christmas” on his site www.ricksteves.com/plan/destinations/scan/norwayxmas04.htm. In Norway, which stretches beyond the Arctic Circle, Vikings held a drinking festival during Jul, the shortest days and darkest nights of winter. They kept a tremendous fire burning, ate, drank, and put out food for the elves who might otherwise do mischief. With the coming of Christianity, Jul became Yule and the yule log kept away the darkness. Contemporary Norwegians use strings of white lights to brighten their homes and streets, starting on December 13, Santa Lucia Day, which commemorates the legend of a generous gentlewoman who wore a crown of candles and distributed food to the poor.
Romans celebrated Saturnalia during December with bonfires, candlelight, laurel boughs, and a week-long drinking binge. Emperor Aurelianus decreed December to be the time to celebrate the cult of Sol Invictus as well. Early Christians wisely adapted the Roman holiday of light and festivities to bring joy to the darkest of months but eliminated the excesses. The occasion evolved into Advent, with its wreath of candles, and culminated at Christmas.
Festivals of light are expressions of faith, hope, and joy
Though the winter solstice falls on one night, the expression of faith in longer days to come and the display of hope that a pinpoint of light projects into the darkness begins before solstice and continues to Epiphany, the Day of the Three Kings, January 6, the last day of the 12 days of Christmas. It is a time of joy and sharing, feasting and dancing, and lighting candles and bonfires.
Bonfires at shrines in Japan signal the festival of Taji and hasten spring. People gather to make offerings to their ancestors.
India revels in Diwali, a five-day celebration in which light figures predominately as a symbol of goodness warding off evil. It’s the time for lighting fireworks, candles and oil lamps. The festival is celebrated by Jains, Sikhs, and Hindus and supported by the Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India, SCFI, which stresses mutual respect and commonality amidst the great diversity of religious beliefs. SCFI tells of the history Diwali and highlights contemporary celebrations in “Diwali, the festival of lights” on its website at www.diwalifestival.org.
In the Middle East, Hanukkah is a festival of lights that celebrates Jewish religious freedom with the lighting of eight candles on a menorah.
Eid is a movable feast celebrated in accordance with the lunar calendar but sometimes in November or December. It is a three-day festival that begins with the sighting of the new moon and includes feasts, new clothes, and gifts of food to the poor.
In West Africa, drumming and dancing welcomes the moon’s crescent light.
The most modern festival is Kwanzaa. Founded in 1966, it is an African-American celebration that stresses seven virtues: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. A seven-candle kinara is lit during the festival.