Ironically, this darkest time of the year at the winter solstice is the season of festivals of light. Never does light seem more important than during the days when the ancients observed the sun stood still. Light is God’s first creation, and the name of his archangel Lucifer means “Bearer of Light.” When Lucifer gets a little too bright for his britches, he’s cast into darkness. Isaiah prophesies that the people walking in darkness will see a great light; and after the fact, John laments they still don’t get it.
Two weeks ago we celebrated the Feast of Santa Lucia, a fourth-century Italian martyr whose name also means “light.” She’s a minor saint in the Roman pantheon; but in Scandinavia, where the people walk in darkness for quite a while each winter, she’s a favorite. On the night of December 13 the oldest girl in a family leads a candlelight procession while wearing a corona of candles herself. After the prayers to Santa Lucia, sure enough, the sun begins to return. Never mind the whole ceremony’s a lot like the dog behind the door who thinks his barking chases away the mailman; it’s a lovely tradition.
This dark time of year, loaded with limitless dramatic possibilities, is a favorite of storytellers. In midwinter we’ll embrace almost any sentimental possibility; and good deeds shine like Shakespeare’s little candle in a naughty world.
Thus it is that a matron in a green Plymouth van inches through bumper-to-bumper Christmas traffic with a smile on her face, nodding at passing motorists and pausing to allow distraught drivers to precede her. Alone among the thousands of smoking vehicles and their steaming occupants, she moves with a dowager stateliness, spreading joy as she goes.
Santa Mama, I call her. She wanders from store to store, smiling with Buddhalike benevolence upon harried young mothers and hassled, squabbling families. A girl with babe in arms trying on a pullover; Mother dandles the infant. A shopper nervous about leaving her cart while she enters a dressing room; Mother offers to watch it. “I just try to do things I would have liked done for me when I was in those positions,” she says.
Her example, like the bumper sticker urging random acts of kindness, is infectious. I stop at the optician’s and the travel agency to wish them a merry Christmas. I greet the town’s most hated man, the parking ticket guy, even though he’s nailed me twice.
Mother has come to confusion only once. She left her credit card on her table at a local restaurant. They couldn’t find it, so she called the card company. Oh, they said, we have it. Somebody tried to use it in an ATM machine, and the machine took it.
The police identified the miscreant as a busgirl at the restaurant: a single mother living in a rented trailer, trying to keep everything together. Did Mother want to sign a complaint? No, she didn’t. She just wanted the name and phone number so she could call and see how we might help, because the woman had been fired.
But the calls were never returned. Sometimes, Mother reflected, you light a candle and the darkness comprehends it not. But you never quit, because you never know.
This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, wishing you all a bright new year.