Christmas lights are some of my favorite things in the world.
The beautiful lights draped over the outside of peoples’ houses, more abundant and more creative before the recession and before the invention of the tacky plastic blow-up Santas and penguins and nativity scenes.
Those plastic candles my Nona used to put in her windows every Christmas, with their bright orange bulbs.
That long train ride home from Alabama last weekend, where strangers’ twinkling Christmas lights reminded me that nights don’t last forever.
Saturday was the winter solstice. I awoke to pale winter sunlight streaming across my bed. Even here in North Carolina, the sun only dragged itself halfway up the sky before lowering itself behind the pine trees and down below the horizon again, leaving behind a blaze of red and purple. And the night closed in on the country road I was driving down, darkness punctuated only by the magic of Christmas lights festooning roadside homes.
A kindling of light against the darkness is one of humanity’s oldest traditions. Holidays falling around the winter solstice in any culture will incorporate light. Because that’s what we need. On the longest nights of the year we need to remind each other that light will return. On the coldest nights of the year we need to remind each other that warmth will return.
Even now that we have invented electricity and effectively found a way to ward off darkness forever (or at least until the earths’ resources run out), we still observe a ritual kindling of special lights every December. The Northern hemisphere pulls back from the sun, darkness devours more and more of every day, and we string little white and red and green lights over trees and houses, claiming our place on the globe with points of light piercing the dark.
To me there is another meaning behind this ritual. It is not simply the fact that the dark will not last. It is the fact that we, humanity, can alleviate the darkness for our neighbors and friends. Winter is still a time of cold, darkness, and hunger for many people in every town and city. Just like I have the ability to bring joy and light to my neighbors by putting up Christmas lights, I also have the ability to provide material goods to those in need. Lighting the darkness should be a symbol of the other ways in which we pull together during the winter to defeat its deadly potential.
In America, our winter festival is centered around the Christian story, a myth of god coming to earth in human form. The metaphors of light cluster around this tale, from the metaphor-laden prophecies, to the dazzling light accompanying those herald angels, to the star guiding the three magi to Bethlehem. Light is a symbol for the peace, joy, and hope wrapped up in the arrival of a promised god-child.
But you don’t need to believe in baby Jesus to cling to the symbolism of light. No matter our race or religion, we must believe and act out the joy and hope of light against the darkness. We can choose peace and generosity and every time we do, we not only defeat the potentially deadly effects of winter, we can even turn the harshest season of the year into a time to play and indulge ourselves and one another.
Simply lighting a candle, like simply believing in an incarnate god, does no good. Acting out the promise contained in a candle or an idea of a holy nativity is what will make all the difference against the darkness.