Most cultures of the Northern Hemisphere know this time of year as the holiday season. What, specifically, your holiday is makes little difference to the myriad merchants and peddlers fervently celebrating consumerism. Our holidays are repackaged and resold to us each year, inching away from their origins into new categories of tradition.
Certainly this consumerism can be merry, communal, even charitable, and it holds a singular place in our lives and memories. But underneath the clutter lies a common foundation: we celebrate this time of year—and we always have—as a salve for darkness. These extra hours of night press on our dispositions. In the midst of them, we often feel downhearted, anxious, hungry or fatigued. Our response, from ancient times until the present, has been to imagine a way out.
Over time, we have imbued darkness with meaning. Anyone who has ever lit a menorah or sat at the foot of a twinkling Christmas tree knows that the black night can be made luminous. We bide the wait looking forward to family and neighbors gathered for revelry, tables spread with decadent feasts, homes and streets trimmed with color, symbolism and, of course, light.
Our inclination toward light this time of year is less reactionary than anticipatory. Winter solstice is the natural end of the agricultural season, a momentary pause following nature’s exhale, foretelling the next inhale. We know the days will lengthen, that spring is not far off. With a touch of impatience, we taunt it, beckoning the sun with effigies.
In Poland, one tradition is to feast on the evening of December 24th, but only once the first star in the sky has been spotted. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, celebrates a flame sprung from oil and faith. In France and its diasporas, Reveillon is the traditional Christmas Eve feast. Meaning ‘waking,’ Reveillon invites those who can muster a second wind to feast after midnight mass. Read with a double meaning, it hints at the reawakening of light, the coming of dawn after a feast of darkness.
Though its origins remain uncertain, the Yule log has long held a primitive enchantment over December nights. Nothing more than a hunk of solid wood—a large limb or old tree stump, the bigger the better—Yule logs were dragged into homes, even barns, and set (sometimes only partially) in a hearth large enough to accommodate their size. This rustic, slow burning fuel was lit with a charred piece of last year’s log and symbolized the burning away of misfortune and bad choices, its light, the hope for a fortunate and prosperous new year. Darkness cleanses, light renews.
Darkness also holds a special kind of light. As a small child, I lived in Minnesota, where snow would often arrive in early December. Freshly fallen snow in the sunshine is an impressive affair—light so bold the eye cannot hold it for long. But, to my sensibilities, snow at night was the most wondrous. I especially treasured evenings when large, twinkling flakes would make their careful way down from the blurry sky to my mitten-covered hand. In the darkness, their intricate shapes could catch the dimmest light, refracting it into pulsing glimmers that seemed to come from within the snowflake itself. I was so mesmerized by the quiet magic of these nights I didn’t want to heed the call to come indoors.
Having technology like electricity has hardly lessened our compulsion. Houses now flicker with thousands of tiny light bulbs, lit up to announce their allegiance to the cause. Our feasts, gifts and decorations have only increased in their decadence. Yet, underneath such an extravagant season is still this simple desire: to abate darkness with camaraderie, to infuse our pleasures with tradition and narrative, and, with our imaginations, intensify their glow.
(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, December 13, 2012)