Luminaria enlightens onlookers about real reason for the season

Luminaria enlightens onlookers about real reason for the season December 23, 2020
By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Co-President
Freedom From Religion Foundation

Someone on our block’s Google group sent out an email last week noting that neighbors on a nearby street were floating the idea of putting out small luminaria on Dec. 24 to “celebrate and spend some time outside even on a cold, dark night.”

Kate emailed our block: “I’m wondering if anyone on our block might be interested in doing this, but for the Winter Solstice instead?” What better date to have a celebration of lights than on the darkest night of the year — Dec. 21, the Winter Solstice?

The idea was an instant hit, not just with us, but with just about everyone else on our small block.

It was pointed out that the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn was to take place about 5 p.m. on Dec. 21. So we settled on placing luminaria and gathering (socially distanced and masked, of course) by sunset Monday. One kind neighbor claimed to have an abundance of paper lunch bags to share. Another took orders for tea candles, then refused to be reimbursed.

Dan Barker and I had requested 40 of each since we’re on a long corner. The supplies quietly appeared at our doorstep Monday afternoon and we quit work at 4:30 p.m. to prepare (not a small task with the wind blowing). Dan, sitting on our front steps, carefully poured a little sand into each bag, lit and inserted the tiny candles, while I ran back and forth to place the small glowing lanterns.

“Now this is an appropriate use of votives,” Dan remarked.

Our entire block was soon lit up, with most of us placing them on only one of the sidewalk in deference to dog walkers. As I was putting out some of the last luminaria, a pedestrian stopped  near me and started taking photographs. He called out, “What’s the occasion? What’s everybody celebrating here?”

“What do you mean, what’s everybody celebrating!” I replied with mock consternation. “It’s the Winter Solstice.” He didn’t reply. “You know, the darkest night of the year.” He still didn’t reply, so I added, “People in the Northern Hemisphere have been celebrating the Winter Solstice with festivals of light and gift exchanges and all that, long before the Christians.”It’s hard to gauge responses when you’re talking in the dark to a stranger in a mask, but he finally laughed and said, “I’m pro-pagan. It’s very cool.”

It was indeed a very cool sight. Neighbors, plus passing admirers, promenaded up and the down the block to gawk — our largest mingling for months. Even though we were all masked and socially distanced, we could more or less make each other out and enjoyed half an hour of bonhomie.

Later, I emailed some of the photos Dan took of the luminaria to a friend and longtime member. Joe, who is very wise, informed me that luminaria is a custom out of New Mexico to mark Christmas. Sure enough, Wikipedia confirms this.

But like almost all such customs, luminaria was undoubtedly co-opted by Christianity. Nothing could be more natural than bonfires and other ways to face the darkest night together and celebrate the fact that longer days will follow.

It’s amazing to me that even now, in 2020, so many Americans are clueless about the “real reason for the season.” New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl had a column this past week, “Looking for light on the longest night of the year,” in which she confessed that she too, like the pedestrian I had spoken with, was clueless about “What’s everybody celebrating?”

When some friends got together at a fire pit recently, she had remarked, “How comforting it is that this season of lights always coincides with the darkest time of the year.”

The historian in her group corrected her — “That’s not a coincidence” — and schooled her about  the Winter Solstice. She in turn recited the facts in her column. But Renkl, in a sense, still remains clueless, writing, “Modern pagans still celebrate the solstice …”

Not so, Margaret. Whether they are conscious of it or not, all the end-of-the-year revelers in the Northern Hemisphere  — observers of Hanukkah with its candelabras, Christians repurposing the “rebirth of the sun” into “the birth of baby Jesus,”  and New Year partygoers — are marking this very natural holiday signaling the natural new year.

We may have passed the darkest day of winter. But as President-elect Joe Biden warns, the “darkest days” of the pandemic “are ahead of us, not behind us.”

So here’s hoping not only that luminaria on the Winter Solstice will catch, but that you will have a bright and safe New Year.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Annie Laurie Gaylor, a third-generation freethinker, co-founded FFRF with her mother Anne Gaylor as a college student in 1976. She served as editor of Freethought Today, FFRF’s newspaper, from 1985 to 2009. Her book, Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So, first published by FFRF in 1981, is in its 4th printing. In 1988, FFRF published Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children, the first book documenting widespread sexual abuse by clergy. Her 1997 anthology, Women Without Superstition: ‘No Gods, No Masters,’ is the first collection of the writings of historic and contemporary women freethinkers.

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