Saturday, December 22, 2007

Lighting the Darkness

Every year my husband Richard and I celebrate the passing of winter’s longest nights with a party: we fill our bellies with homemade eggnog and other treats, and our hearts with the companionship of friends and family.

To warm our spirits, we light the darkness, filling dozens of paper bags with a scoop of sand and a small votive candle, and lining our block with these luminarias. As dusk falls, partygoers help us light them one by one; the small flames burn through the night heralding the sun’s return at dawn.


Light is a traditional part of winter celebrations in latitudes where the tilt in Earth’s axis sends one hemisphere away from the sun during half of each year. The resultant darkness inspires the menorah of Hanukkah, Advent and Kwanzaa candles, and the Yule log burned in holiday bonfires.

Before our relatively recent understanding of the effect of Earth’s rotational eccentricity on day-length, it must have seemed as if the sun retreated each fall, leaving only darkness and cold. Then, as if by magic, our celestial source of light and heat had a change of heart after winter solstice and the days grew longer again.

No wonder my Celtic and Scandinavian ancestors lit bonfires atop hills near their homes on the shortest night of the year. The ancient Norse illuminated the dark times with a 12-day feast in crowded halls lit by burning log and taper, where bards recited epic poems in which heroes triumphed over the darkness of evil just as the returning light would eventually banish winter’s long nights.

The luminarias that Richard and I light every year are a tradition born in Hispanic New Mexico from bonfires and hanging paper lanterns lit to guide the procession portraying the Holy Family in their search for shelter. (The paper-bag lights are still called farolitos, “little lanterns,” in Santa Fe, but are luminarias elsewhere.)

Holiday lights are meant to illuminate, a word that means “to light up,” and also, appropriate to our modern insight into the way Earth’s tilted axis is responsible for the annual alternation in day length, “to explain, make clear, elucidate.” Light alleviates intellectual darkness, bestowing knowledge and understanding.

As I strike a match to light a wick at our holiday party, and place a flaming votive candle on its bed of sand inside a paper bag, I think about the lessons in luminarias. The bags by themselves are flimsy and flammable, the candles too dainty for sizeable light, the sand simply grit underfoot.

Yet together candle, lunch bag, and sand do their part to illuminate the darkness: each slender wick feeds liquid wax into flame; the paper walls shelter flame from wind and snow and their translucency diffuses light; the sand grounds the bag and prevents the flame from incinerating the paper that protects it.

Inside their flammable shelters the candles burn steadily hour after hour through the darkness of a long winter night. When dawn comes many of these ethereal lamps are still glowing softly, demonstrating the extraordinary resilience and beauty inherent in the simplest of things.

As I light another wick and watch the streetlights wink on, clouding my view of the darkening sky, I wonder if our ancient fear of the night has blinded us to an illumination visible only in true darkness: the light of the stars. Away from the glare of electric lighting, the night reveals heaven’s miracle: we see the stars only by light from the past which has traveled years across space to reach our eyes, while their current light shines only in our future.

Standing with family and friends in the darkness of a blessed winter night, I turn my face to the silver-spangled heavens. My spirit glows, lit by the commonplace grace of small candles burning in simple paper bags.

Happy Solstice, all!

(This essay first appeared in my weekly column in the Salida, Colorado, Mountain Mail newspaper, and was heard on KHEN community radio, 90.6 FM, Salida, Colorado. All rights reserved.)

6 comments:

Deborah said...

I love luminarias. Thanks for reminding me.

Susan J Tweit said...

Sparking light in this dark time is a powerful act. And luminarias are so small and their light seemingly so fragile - and beautiful. To me they are so full of hope.

Susan
http://susanjtweit.com

Janet Grace Riehl said...

Yes, small, fragile, beautiful points of lighted hope. The tour of the luminariaras in Old Town, especially, in Albuquerque, was one of the high points of my holiday season during the years I lived in New Mexico. The tradition has now spread beyond the Southwest, but luminarias never look so beautiful as when you can also smell the pinion and see the startlingly clear Southwestern stars.

Janet
www.riehlife.com

peppersauce said...

I am A southwest soul living in Oregon. My luminaria was the full moon and I was grateful to see it. I would have loved to be at Susan and Richard's party with all my old friends sharing the start of the winter Solstice. This time of year is when the Art inside of me is finally breaking out for the new year, a very creative, exciting time. The long winter days are so perfect for new insite.

peppersauce said...

I am A southwest soul living in Oregon. My luminaria was the full moon and I was grateful to see it. I would have loved to be at Susan and Richard's party with all my old friends sharing the start of the winter Solstice. This time of year is when the Art inside of me is finally breaking out for the new year, a very creative, exciting time. The long winter days are so perfect for new insite.

Susan J Tweit said...

Janet, I wish you could have been here to see our luminarias last Friday night as they glowed in a blizzard of new snow. The air was wet with snowflakes and spicy with the piñon smoke coming from the chimney of our woodstove (we live in the high desert, much like Santa Fe, with piñon-juniper woodlands right around town). Once the snowstorm passed, the sky was clear and dark, littered with stars.

Ms. Peppersauce, we missed you! I'm glad you are finding inspiration in the turning of the year.

These long dark nights give our spirits time to turn inward and mull over all we've learned over the year, finding what we need for the new days ahead.

Susan
http://susanjtweit.com