Over the years I¿ve simplified what I do for the holidays. Less distracted by tinsel and hurry, I¿ve begun to find new meaning in the celebrations we observe this time of year. These days are so dark. They evoke the dark night, when the soul wants to curl up under the covers.
So in recent years I¿ve been thinking about light and the blessing it brings as it shines through the darkness. In Christian churches, the celebration of Jesus¿ birth heralds the arrival of the Light of God in a dark world. Five candles are often used to symbolize the coming of this light, one for each Sunday in Advent leading up to the birth of Jesus, and a fifth candle for December 25th, the day of birth itself. The Jewish celebration of Hanukkah is also called The Festival of Lights. The lighting of eight candles on the menorah on 8 consecutive nights is a central part of the holy days. Many African Americans celebrate Kwanzaa. In this tradition, seven candles are placed in a holder called a kinara. Over seven consecutive nights, the candles are lighted. Each candle symbolizes a principle of living that brings light to the life of the family, community, and culture.
On a public and secular scale, we decorate our homes and businesses with lights, sometimes in amazing spreads of gaudy cheer. After years of Vermont Decembers I¿ve become grateful for these displays, from the smallest to the most grandiose. In some areas one guesses a neighborhood rivalry, as the displays become increasingly showy from one twinkling house to the next.
One recent dark afternoon, hungry for light, I went in search of it among the poets on my bookshelf. Grace Paley, a poet who lives in Vermont, writes of winter light in a poem called “In Montpelier, Vermont,” found in her book, BEGIN AGAIN: COLLECTED POEMS. She describes a sunny street in February, and then gives the forecast for the day:
A GLORIOUS DAY! A GLORIOUS DAY!
there will be snow on all the hillsides
the roads are being plowed as we speak
it is cold as February must be
but our generous friend the sun
will be seen everywhere.
Paley’s words were a welcome reminder, a promise of sunny days to come.
Another poet, Mary Oliver, in her book NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, also writes of sunlight in a poem called ¿The Buddha¿s Last Instruction,¿
Make of yourself a light,
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
Watching the sun transform the darkness of the world causes Oliver to reflect on the words of the Buddha, words spoken for the people gathered around him as he died, and words for herself as she watches how the sun lights up the earth.
Grace Paley and Mary Oliver write in other poems of the darkness of the human heart, the darkness of human times. Each poet in her own way knows this darkness well and faces it with honesty, courage, and compassion. So it is that when the light comes, they can express its power with believable conviction. We are in a dark time. The months are dark, and so are many places in the human heart and experience. To light candles, to notice light, to bring light wherever we are, is no small feat. Our need for the presence of light in the midst of darkness is a fundamental reason for celebrating in our various ways the holidays and holy days of midwinter.
This is Lois Eby.
–Lois Eby is a painter who comments on the arts, women’s issues, and civil rights.