Season of Light

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.

Light warms our hearts, evokes glad memories and reminds us of springtime and life. The warmth of the sun on one’s face vaporizes depression and unhappiness like a passing breeze, reminding us of the simple pleasures that are open to everyone, and the glow of the hearth recalls companionship, love and home. By contrast, we can find mystery and romance in the dark, we can be enthralled by its sense of the unknown, and we can thrill to its sense of danger; but we cannot live in it. The night is for sleep and dreaming – our lives are to be truly lived in the light.

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.

On the Importance of Firebrand Atheism
Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Shooting
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • lpetrich

    There are some ancient monuments that suggest that such celebrations are very ancient.

    The Newgrange Megalithic Passage Tomb (3200 BCE Ireland) has its entrance corridor oriented so that when the Sun rises on Winter Solstice, it shines directly into that corridor. The Dowth Megalithic Passage Tomb (similar age, same place) is similar; there is a part of it that is illuminated by the Sun only during the Winter Solstice afternoon.

    I can’t find any others offhand, but the design of these structures suggests that their designers considered the Winter Solstice an important occasion. Meaning that the Winter Solstice has been the Reason for the Season for at least 5000 years.

  • Ebonmuse

    That’s very interesting indeed, lpetrich – thanks for pointing it out. This tradition goes back so far, I wonder if it’s possible that all these superficially different holidays have a common source deep in humanity’s history. On the other hand, since we’re all human beings and our minds are all built mostly alike, maybe different cultures just naturally respond the same way to the same natural events.

  • Ebonmuse

    I could kick myself: I realized today that I almost forgot the best example of them all. In addition to all the religious holidays I listed above, there’s a specifically secular, humanist celebration that some nonbelievers observe on December 23: it’s called HumanLight.

  • lpetrich

    I agree that it is more likely a common response.

    And here are some more:

    Maeshowe, built around 5000 years ago in the Orkney Islands just north of Great Britain; its entrance is aligned for viewing the winter-solstic sunset.

    Stonehenge, built around 5000 to 4000 years ago in southwestern England. Its main alignment is from winter solstice sunset to summer solstice sunrise.

    Chichen Itza, built around 1000 years ago in the Yucatan Peninsula, also has some solstice alignments.

    Lunar Markings on Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico discusses the distinctive illumination of some markers on the solstices; those markers were likely carved around 1000 years ago.

    The British Isles monument builders lived long before anyone was literate in the British Isles; in fact, they lived around when writing was invented in Sumeria and in Egypt, far away from them.

    And they could never have heard about Jesus Christ, of course; he was far in the future. Even the first record of his ethnicity, in Merneptah’s Victory Stele, was 2000 years in the future.

  • lpetrich

    I’ve found some even older astronomically-aligned ancient monuments.

    The temple complex of Mnajdra in Malta has two chambers aligned so that equinox sunrise shines through both of them onto a slab. At the solstices, the rising Sun shines onto one of the pillars at each side of the connecting passageway. It was built in the 4th millennium BCE.

    The Nabta Playa in Egypt has a summer-solstice-aligned “Egyptian Stonehenge”; it dates back to the 5th millennium BCE.

    But the champion so far is the Goseck circle, the “German Stonehenge” despite being stoneless. It has gaps oriented to the north and to the winter-solstice sunrise and sunset. It was built around 4900 BCE, nearly 7000 years ago.

    As to why mark out the winter solstice, I think that it is to find where one is in the winter.