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.)