Off we go trailing shopping lists and credit card receipts. Hanukkah and Christmas are this week. We may complain about our errands but we enjoy the festivity these holidays bring to our gray December days.
Hanukah and Christmas, these holidays that celebrate light, are aligned with the seasonal transit of the sun. It’s a leftover from earlier times when the nature religions led all of the others. There was good reason, then as now, to shun the darkness.
We know that as the seasons changed our ancient relatives feared that the sun had died. To coax the sun god back they created rituals that involved fire and light. The Druids lit bonfires. We celebrate with candles and lights on our trees.
In the Northern Hemisphere this is the time when we face our vulnerability. We saw this last week when bad weather took light and heat from many. But weather is the least of it. This time of year we have other darkness’s: grief, fears and regrets. We do our best to outrun them. Some of us go to the Caribbean and some to sunlamps; many pursue spirits, religious or distilled. Just like our ancestors we want the sun and warmth to come back, so we go to stores and burn up our credit cards; we sacrifice our savings.
But we still fear the dark. Much of what we do this time of year is for distraction. Not unlike whistling when we pass a graveyard, now we sing and shop and eat too much. And we complain. But maybe our railing against our holiday chores is itself a part of the solstice. Now when we are oppressed by darkness –when our primitive fears can be felt even through layers of advertising and anti-depressants-- we are drawn to the lights and to other people as our defense against the dark, just as our ancient relatives were drawn to stars and fires.
Religion and spirituality is a way out of darkness and into hope and joy. The coming holidays are about mystery and miracles; oil that lasts eight days and the birth of a baby in a barn. But the flip side of each story is about the dark just at the edge of the light. Hanukah and Christmas are also about darkness. Sometimes we miss that. There wasn’t enough oil. A small family was homeless. But the oil lasted and there was light. The child born in darkness was called the “light of the world”.
Just like these holidays our own stories don’t work if we don’t include the darkness too. We’re fighting something ancient, natural and necessary. But occasionally we need to feel the darkness—even symbolically--like we sometimes need a dark night or a wild storm.
The words of this carol could just as well be a Solstice song: Yet in the dark street shineth, the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
On this day the sun is at the most southern point of its transit. Tonight is the longest night of the year. Starting tomorrow our days will grow longer again. The cycle is astronomical and holy. On this night we are as ancient as ever.
So maybe on this night we could allow the darkness. On this darkest night, what if we dared ourselves to wait before we light the candles. What if we sat a moment with the menorah unlit and the tree in darkness--and took a breath. That’s what solstice is about. We can enter the darkness and emerge transformed. We can stand it.