Monday, December 23, 2013

Darkening of the Days & Our Little Lights

I'm really fond of a Christmas tradition hearkens back to pre-Christian cultures: the bringing of lights into the home until the sun returns and the days lengthen.

When I was a child, I read about the ancient customs of kindling bonfires and putting lights on trees, in an act of sympathetic magic until the light in the sky increased. For Christians and European pagans alike, that light is the Light of the World, the hope that comes amid darkness. The season of the Winter Solstice must have been both a fearful and hopeful time: the families and animals they brought indoors in the much deeper winters of those times, the sharing of scarce food put up in the harvest months, the act of celebration under many faiths--Jewish, Christian, Pagan--to hold up a few lights in the dark.

That's a time we forget, as we tend to get nostalgic--thank you, Charles Dickens--about the Victorian traditions we trot out with every school play of "A Christmas Carol."

I played Scrooge in 6th grade, incidentally: both my acting debut and finale.

Today, I'm feeling more like Bob Cratchit: Yuletide is more about family and the warmth of the hearth than about fancy gifts and conspicuous consumption.

As our first full year here in the countryside ended ended, we stop where we began: with the annual Christmas-Eve celebration. We have been trimming our trees and putting up lights, late in the season when compared to most folks. As a child I helped with the tree every Christmas Eve; my family lacked spending money but the tree lots offered good bargains the night before Christmas; we'd get a tree that remained, often too tall or too short, then bring it home to decorate before midnight.  It came down barely a week later; in our one room fit for a tree, the same room that our whole-home gas stove occupied, a cut tree dried out fast.

I hated to see the tree go down, but the very brevity of its time in our house made me look forward to its next arrival as much as Santa's. It was part of that suspension of disbelief, combined with a child's belief in magic. Never mind that our single heat source meant Santa would have to squeeze through a metal pipe and into a burning gas stove before entering our house.

A child can believe in such miracles. Perhaps other miracles of a minor variety remain all around us whenever plants germinate or we get a good harvest. It's a miracle when an ancient tractor starts up while my new one gets repairs. It's a miracle to find just the right disc-harrows in the woods, abandoned and overgrown, to pull out and use that very day. It's a miracle to have enough firewood for winter. Thus it's been a good year learning about rural life first-hand and full-time, in spite of a wet summer and the promise of another see-saw winter as Virginia's climate continues to warm.

I hope, as bad things happen in the years to come, we all, individually, hold up a light and share it with others against the darkening of the days. There's been enough rage and hatred. One friend told of a Christmas party at which everyone made a wish. The guests were all wealthy, yet they all, to a person, wished for "abundance." Let me wish differently.

How about "may everyone be free from fear and suffering. May everyone have what they need"?

That's my 2013 Christmas wish. Light your own candle. I suspect that we will kindle a collective fire one day. I'll keep putting up my lights until then, and try not to say "Humbug" too often.

Here's to a Blessed Solstice, a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and a Joyous New Year!

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