Each year on winter solstice, my husband, Richard and I celebrate the passing of winter’s longest nights with a party: we fill our bellies with homemade eggnog (recipe below) 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, party-goers help us light them one by one; the small flames burn through the night heralding the sun’s return at dawn.
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 gradually grew longer again.
Hence the predominance of decorative and symbolic lights in our winter holiday celebrations. 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 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 we picked up in our years in New Mexico. These "little lights" evolved 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 our intellectual and spiritual darkness, bestowing knowledge and understanding.
As I strike a match to light a wick at our solstice celebration and place a flaming votive candle on its bed of sand inside a paper bag, I think about what I learn from these lights The paper bags by themselves are flimsy and flammable, the candles small, 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 that 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 in the simplest of materials.
This year marked our eleventh winter solstice at home in this rural south-central Colorado community, and our eleventh "light the darkness" party. Throngs of friends arrived to help fill and place luminaria bags, and to light the candles even as air temperatures plunged after sunset. By dark, our house was packed with friends, the inside air suffused with warmth and joy.
"We could see your house from blocks away," said one couple as they shed coats and mufflers before joining the crowd. "It glowed."
Hours later, after the last guests had left and Richard and I had finished cleaning up, we stepped outside into the year's longest night. We walked down the sidewalk lined with flickering candlelight under a black sky twinkling with silver stars.
Walking hand in hand in the quiet darkness, breathing air cold and sharp as ice, my spirit glowed, lit by the commonplace grace of love--and the beauty of small candles burning in simple paper bags.
(Adapted from Joy of Cooking)
One dozen eggs, separated
1 pound powdered sugar
2 1/2 cups dark rum, brandy, or bourbon
3 cups skim milk
3 cups half 'n half
2 cups whipping cream
whole nutmeg for grating
Beat the egg yolks until smooth and slightly frothy. Then add powdered sugar gradually, beating slowly (or else you'll choke on sugar dust) and constantly. (I use a stand mixer for this recipe. It's much easier, especially when beating the whites.) Add the liquor--I use rum--and beat until thoroughly mixed. Then cover and leave the mixture for an hour or so to let the flavors blend. Add the milk, half 'n half, and cream. Cover the mixture again and refrigerate for at least three hours (I do this stage the day before I want to serve the eggnog, and let it mellow overnight in the refrigerator.) Just before serving the eggnog, beat the whites in a large bowl until they form soft peaks. Fold the whites into the nog, grate nutmeg over the surface to taste, and enjoy! (Serves 25 or so if you use small cups--it's potent!)