As the end of 2006 draws within sight, the annual holiday season is upon us. This year, I have noticed an interesting pattern in these familiar rituals. It is striking how many of the holidays that fall around this time of year involve the ceremonial kindling of light as an element of the celebration.
Chief among them, of course, is the Christian/pagan holiday of Christmas, when evergreen trees and buildings’ eaves are adorned with strings of glowing lights, and the traditional Yule log is burned in hearths. A close runner-up is the Jewish festival of Hanukkah famously celebrated with eight nights of lighting candles on the menorah, supposedly in commemoration of an ancient miracle in which a one-day supply of consecrated oil burned for eight days to light the newly rededicated Jerusalem Temple. And let us not forget the only thinly Christianized pagan celebration of Halloween, one of the most familiar symbols of which is the grinning jack-o’-lantern lit up by inner light, and the fireworks displays that commemorate New Year’s.
Nor is this tradition limited to the cultures usually known as Western. Around this same time of year in India, Hindus, Sikhs and Jains celebrate Diwali, the Festival of Light. A very popular cultural holiday given different interpretations by the various religions that participate, Diwali is a five-day event traditionally marked with fireworks, lamps, ceremonial candles, paper lanterns and other sources of light. Buddhists have a similar festival, Loy Krathong, that usually falls in November, in which fleets of small rafts carrying burning candles or incense are released onto rivers.
Traditions this widespread often have a common underlying basis, and I believe that is the case here. For cultures of the Northern Hemisphere, which most of the planet’s population is, the end of the Gregorian year is wintertime, when the days are short and darkness falls early. As the Sun, source of light and life, sinks from view and the land grows dark and cold, it is understandable that people across many cultures would respond by kindling their own light, seeking to preserve some of that precious illumination to lift their spirits and sustain them through the winter.
It is no surprise that we seek light in a season of darkness. We are, after all, a visual species. As compared to many other living creatures that rely on their senses of hearing or smell, human beings make their way through the world with vision as our primary guide, and devote far more of our brains to sight than we do to any other sense. Though our mammalian forebears were nocturnal, we are not, and in true darkness we are all but helpless. It would not surprise me at all to learn that our winter celebrations, like the spring celebrations that commemorate resurrection and rebirth, have deep roots reaching back to humanity’s agricultural past. Our Hanukkah menorahs, our Christmas lights – these may all be modern echoes of an ancient ritual of fire-kindling, a bravely defiant attempt of some group of long-ago people to safeguard their homes and families from the unknown terrors of the wintertime dark with sympathetic magic. As in many other things, time may have blurred the original reasons behind this practice until they were forgotten entirely, and new reasons invented in their stead to explain why we still reenact this ancient tradition.
But there is another kind of light, more profound than mere physical illumination. The holiday season has never just been a time for ceremonial illumination, but a time to remind us of our moral duty to ease the burden of suffering in this world and brighten the lives of others through acts of compassion and charity. In truth we should be devoted to this cause twelve months out of each year, but any effort at all is far better than none. If the holidays are a season of light, then this is the most important kind we can bring about – the light that shines into the lives of others and leaves them aware that they are cared for and loved – and this, far more than candles or Christmas lights, is the kind we should all seek to promote.