Reflections - Light in the Darkness

Eleanor Deckert

Many people no longer participate in organized religion. Yet, perhaps they will resonate with this thought: “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.”

We are moving into the darkest time of the year. I always remember the day in Grade Three when the teacher turned off the lights and drew the blinds. One student held a powerful flashlight while the teacher demonstrated with the globe just what was happening. As the peoples living in the Southern Hemisphere experience the dawn of springtime brightness and summer warmth, residents in the Northern Hemisphere are plunged into the autumn months of chill and winter's dreary darkness.

Sunshine brings life, which means plenty of food. Darkness means the fear of starvation. How does the darkness come? The forces of Nature were personified as deities. How can the people beg the gods to revive their crops and herds, return the sun, preserve the tribe?

From earliest civilizations, this Light-and-Dark cycle has been a part of even the most primitive cultures and religions. Perhaps best known of the man-made monuments, Stonehenge is calculated to measure the sunrise on the longest and shortest days. In huts and igloos, yurts and palaces, people across the continents and all through time push back the silent icy landscape with light, colour, gift-giving and feasts, practice fine skills of embroidery, woodcarving and metal work, tell tall tales, write poems and compose music during these months. Every culture passes customs to the next generation as they gather around the hearth fires.

Although there are mixed messages from ancient documents about the origins, interpretations, adaptations and variations of the customs in ancient Roman times, Saturnalia is a well-known name of the mid-winter festivals marking the winter solstice. Priestly rites, sacrifices, temples, statues and ritual clothing were used to appease the gods and beg for the return of life-giving sunshine. Meanwhile, the common people feasted on the newly gathered harvest, slaughtered animals and fermented drinks. Abundance led to debauchery. What was sacred became gluttonous.

In another ancient culture, Diwali - one of the most popular festivals of Hinduism - spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair.

Called by the same name, the lights of Diwali are bright in homes, offices and shops, which follow the customs of a Jain temple. Diwali is celebrated in an atmosphere of austerity, simplicity, serenity, equity, calmness, charity, philanthropy and environment-consciousness. The following day marks the New Year.

Buddhists light a candle while they meditate and see Light as the presence of God within all humans.

In the far north, Inuit peoples developed games that can be played in small spaces within the igloo during the wintertime. Entertaining, yet also valuable to keep family members fit and spirits lifted, these games tested participants’ wits, agility and strength, as well as providing laughter to on-lookers.

In northern Europe, the feast day of Santa Lucia is celebrated. She was a fourth-century woman who lit the way as she helped persecuted Christians hide in tunnels. Carried forward to the present day, the story is re-enacted by a young girl in a white gown, carefully wearing a crown of candles on her head, leading a procession through her home or village, while a traditional song is sung by all.

From southern Africa, the custom of Kwanzaa also uses the lightning of candles to remind participants of the seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Hanukkah is a Jewish festival that lasts for eight days, commemorating the end of a fierce battle when the Temple was rededicated but there was only a one-day supply of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days.

The Hebrew text, Isaiah 9:2 refers to the spiritual meaning of light-and-darkness when it points to the coming of the Messiah: “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

When Jesus began to preach He identified Himself, “I am the Light of the World.” (John 8:12). Although no one knows the exact date of the birth of Christ, the Catholic Church set the date based on the statement of John the Baptist. Speaking of Jesus, John told his followers, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3: 30). For this reason, John's Feast Day is at the summer solstice and Jesus' Feast Day (Christmas) is at the winter solstice.

This coming Sunday, December 4, in churches around the world, the first candle in the Advent wreath will be lit. Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. These are the gifts Christ brings.

A Spiral Garden is a quiet tradition, a calming pause in contrast to the bombardment of consumerism that vies for our attention. A spiral garden is simply made with evergreen boughs laid out on a floor making a spiral pathway for participants to enter one-by-one. Entering the dark spiral, participants come to the central, bright candle, light their own candle, and exit slowly thorough the maze, adding their light to the path. In this way, participants physically build what volunteers do in real-life: adding their own 'light' to their community through acts of service, kindness and compassion.

In the last century, candles and bonfires have become electric lights. Some say that in recent years people seem to be choosing wintertime light-and-darkness customs that revert back to pre-Christian roots.

Whatever the celebration, perhaps we can all agree this winter to sing along with Raffi: “This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine!”