The bright lights come out in December, wonderful cascades of light making neighbourhoods more beautiful. Icicles hang from gutters and brilliant dioramas on lawns give the illusion of movement as the lights flicker off and on in wondrous patterns. In picture windows, we see Christmas trees garlanded with strings of coloured lights. Our cities join in with displays on the streets, in the parks, and on the light poles.
We are celebrating a festival of light as we edge towards the winter solstice. It is a natural human impulse to find ways to lighten the darkness as the days grow shorter and the nights longer.
Lights which seem to dance in the night sky are even more necessary as the pandemic rages on. As we come to the end of a difficult year, the brightness lifts our spirits as we seek to brighten up the darkest days. It’s a profoundly human impulse rooted deep within us.
I suspect that religious festivals of light are rooted in this human impulse to shine as the nights grow longer and darker.
Christmas is a good example. There is no good reason to celebrate the birth of the Light of the World in December. Nobody knows when Jesus was born. The Bible doesn’t say. The earliest record of a celebration of Christmas on December 25 comes from the year 336.
The church chose December 25 because it was the date on which ancient Romans celebrated the rebirth of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) which marked the return of longer days after the winter solstice. It came at the end of the festival of Saturnalia, a popular festival marked by feasting and giving gifts.
Christianity only became legal in 312. It seems natural that as Christianity became legitimate, the church would want to celebrate its own festival at the same time as Saturnalia. What better festival for Christians than to celebrate the birth of the Light of the World.
Other religions also celebrate festivals of light at this time of year.
Millions of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains across the world celebrate Diwali, a festival of lights. Each candle symbolizes the power of light to conquer darkness. For Hindus, this festival is also a time to contemplate and dispel the darkness of ignorance.
Jews celebrate the festival of Hanukkah. A candle is lighted on each of the eight days until the festival ends with a blaze of light. This celebration is a time for faithful Jews to reflect on their calling to be light in the world.
Indigenous peoples light the sacred fire at the beginning of any ceremony or sacred event. The light of the fire is a spiritual doorway that opens to a spiritual realm. The sacred fire is never left alone; a Fire Keeper tends it. People gather around the fire for ceremony and conversation.
Kwanzaa is becoming a more common festival which incorporates practices of an ancient spirituality from Africa and elsewhere. In this celebration, light is a symbol of the seven principles—Unity; Self-Determination; Collective Work and Responsibility; Cooperative Economics; Purpose; Creativity; Faith. Each night, the community lights a candle to commemorate each principle in turn.
Christians celebrate Christmas as the birth of the Light of the World. In Advent, we prepare. The light begins with a single candle, growing until the world blazes on Christmas Eve with the unextinguishable light which shines in the darkness.
We share light in common with other people of faith. We all internalize this deep and profound human impulse to beat back the darkness. We hold the light in our hands, in our hearts, in our minds, and in our intention to live as people who are faithful to the Creator of all. We understand and proclaim that our common mission is not just to see the light, but to be the light.