As we enter the darkest time of the year I wanted to share a little light with you in the form of traditions, most born from the idea of LIGHT. Imagine how dark it was for the people inhabiting our planet before the age of gas or electric light. How long and dark the winter season must have seemed (and we complain...sheesh!). It is not a coincidence that these festivals originated in the deepest darkness of the year.
As we approach the darkest time of the year our thoughts seem to naturally turn to the idea of light and celebration in an attempt to elevate our spirits. This has been done all over the world for centuries. Most countries regardless of their religion or culture acknowledge some type of celebration of light at this, the darkest time of the year.
Diwali has passed for this year, as it is celebrated in late fall just before a new moon when the sky is the darkest. It is a Hindu celebration welcoming the god Rama with a magnificent festival of lights all over India, and beyond. On this day thousands of years ago, Rama returned to claim the throne after 14 years in exile. During this festival diye are lit, which are small clay lamps, in hopes that Lakshimi, the goddess of prosperity, will visit their homes. Diwali lasts for two days, on the second night families pray, feast, and set off fire works to ward off evil spirits.
St. Lucia Day is December 13th, one of the longest, darkest winter nights. Lucia is the patron saint of light. People celebrate this day in Scandanavia, and Lucia's homeland, Italy along with other European countries and in areas of the United States. Many years ago Saint Lucia is said to have lit her way to caves with a crown of candles, where Christians were hiding, to bring them food. As a tribute to this brave young woman, girls dress up as Saint Lucia, wearing a long white gown, red sash and a crown of light. She is accompanied by other children, each carrying a candle. The Festival of St. Lucia is celebrated by lighted processions, eating Lussekatter buns and singing carols and acts as the beginning of the Christmas season.
People have celebrated the middle of winter for centuries. Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year, after which each of the days grow progressively longer until Summer Solstice. Many cultures celebrate this sign of winter's waning and traditions of the solstice have continued into today's other winter festivals. For example, Dongxhi is the Chinese Winter Solstice Celebration. From the shortest day of the year the Yin powers of darkness weaken and the Yang powers of warmth and light increase. People gather to eat festive food and celebrate. In the Middle East the Zoroastrians observe Yalda, a Solstice Festival held on the longest night of the year. It is celebrated as a victory of the sun over darkness and good over evil by fasting and acts of charity.
On the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev (usually in December), Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. It lasts for eight days and features an eight branched candlestick, which symbolizes the miracle that happened when the Temple of Jerusalem was recaptured and cleansed, more than 2,000 years ago. There may some gift exchanges and everyone looks forward to potato latkes and applesauce.
Children's Day is observed in the Tibetan community on the Winter Solstice. They celebrate the "royalty" inherent in every child. A shrine is constructed for the "sense offerings" of touch, taste, sound, smell and sight along with a symbolic replica of heaven and earth. Children put out food offerings the night prior to the Solstice and awaken to baskets of gifts for the entire family. On the day itself, children are treated like royalty and taken somewhere special.
Kwanza is an African-American celebration based on the traditional African festival of the first crops. It begins on December 26th and lasts for seven days. Kwanza is derived from a phrase in Swahili which means first fruits. The holiday was developed in 1966 and centers on the seven principles of Black culture: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith.
As I wrote this it became clear that these traditions are complex and writing short blurbs about each one does not do them justice. Fortunately the internet is full of information on each one if you are interested in learning more.