Christmas Lights

How many people read a blog on a major holiday?  The process of writing takes no vacations, however, and I often think of holidays as a time to write.  It doesn’t really matter if anyone reads it; writing is our witness to the cosmos that “Kilroy was here.”  Even if most of us have no idea who Kilroy was.  So I find myself awake earlier than most children on Christmas morning.  My long habit of rising early to catch the bus hasn’t been easy to break.   I creep down the stairs and water the tree before turning on its colorful lights.  I make a cup of coffee and wash the dishes left in the sink after a festive Christmas Eve.  And I think.  There’s always the thinking.

The meaning of Christmas, as the holiday classic tells us, eludes Charlie Brown.  Linus van Pelt gives one rendition—that of the Gospel of Luke—as the canonical meaning, but in my experience it shifts during a lifetime.  Christmas, after all, is one of a host of solstice celebrations.  My thinking these days is that it’s all about light.  Shimmering angels, glowing stars, light coming into the darkness.  These ideas seem to have, for the most part, Zoroastrian origins, but they’ve been thoroughly appropriated and, in true American style, commercialized.  The news headlines read how disappointed retailers always are.  The take could’ve been bigger.  Capitalism relies on Christmas to make the third quarter.  Light in the darkness, in its own distorted way.

As I sit for these quiet moments in the glow of only a tree, I think of those for whom the holiday has become a kind of disappointment.  Not a cheery Christmas thought, I know, but an honest one.  As families grow and diversify the childhood Christmas of excited children scrambling under the tree to excavate the next gift for me starts to fade.  Our economic system separates, and the dearth of days off around the holidays makes travel back to childhood homes difficult.  We do the best we can, but the fact is the sixties (speaking for me) are over.  Our reality is colder and darker than it used to be.  I part the curtains and look for any sign of dawn.  It will be a few hours yet before the sun brightens this winter sky, but then, that’s what the holiday has come to mean for me.  At least this year, it is the hope of light returning.  And that, alone, makes it a holiday.

Reflecting on Light

Now that we’re approaching the winter solstice, light is pretty much on the minds of those of us in the northern hemisphere.  Or lights.  The use of Christmas lights and Hanukkah lights may have symbolic value to the religions that promote them, but both also reflect the pagan use of sympathetic magic to bring back the light.  Human beings tend to be visually oriented, and many of us feel the increasing darkness deeply.  Days are brief enough to be awake for the entirety of daylight’s duration, and then you still have to get home after work.  After dark.  All our enlightened hours are spent for the benefit of the company.  It takes its toll.  And so we string holiday lights, bringing cheer into the preternaturally long hours starved for illumination.

Although the snow hasn’t stayed around here, I did notice an interesting reflection of light outdoors the other day.  The windows of a house were casting a light-shadow on a fence that had the look of a cross.   It took some convincing to assure me that this was pareidolia—the assigning of intentionality to random “signal.”  We see faces where they don’t really exist, and when we see crosses in this evangelical haven of America we have to assume they’re intentional.  Sometimes, however, they’re simply a trick of the light.  The sun has a low angle this time of year, and the light that is otherwise scattered back into what is wonderfully termed airglow—the natural illumination caused by sunlight as its luminosity brightens the daytime sky—is focused lower.  Light takes shape and sometimes it seems religious.

 

In New York City, where repeated patterns are pervasive, such reflections often appear on neighboring buildings as “X-Files” symbols of Xs in circles, giving the city a mysterious look.  Out here, however, they appear as crosses.  You see what you want to see.  Or, sometimes you can’t help seeing what appears utterly obvious to credulous eyes.  I’ve had people insist that crosses like this are intentional.  In reality, they’re a natural result of rectangles reflecting the morning light when the sun follows its low profile ecliptic during the waning of the year.  That doesn’t mean that it can’t be read for something else, of course,  Religion is all about interpretation.  Light forms patterns and seems strong enough to banish darkness.  And given how many hours it’s dark these days, I’m willing to take what help I can get.  The solstice will soon be here.

All Is Calm

For those who prefer their solstice celebrations in Christian flavor, today’s Christmas Eve. As various denominations warn us to keep Christ in Christmas, secular NORAD provides a radar tracker to follow Santa through the skies. One hopes he’ll be cautious over North Korea this year. He may skip the White House altogether. And yet some will insist that there was no Christmas before Christ. But there was. Celebrations of the lengthening of the days began when humans reached temperate zones, at the very least. Prehistoric monuments throughout the British Isles were aligned with the sun’s position at solstices even before the Bible was scribbled on its first bit of parchment in warmer climes far away. We eagerly await the light.

Many religious traditions tell of that light within. Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, and some Asian religions focus on the divine spark, or secular light, within humankind. We are light-bearers, no matter what our religion. Back in my Nashotah House days, when Evening Prayer was a communal, daily expectation, the hymn Phos Hilaron, “gladsome light,” or, in the more liturgical mode, “O gracious light,” was the part that moved me most. We observe the coming of darkness with the hope that light might somehow continue. When days grow brief our hope grows fervent that the light will miraculously return. That it does so by the working of nature makes it no less of a wonder. We have been living in nighttime, and that light within us seems to flag at the persistent gloom. Then solstice. Christmas Eve captures that light in angelic voices.

Those who insist it’s all fake—the Tiny Tim crutch of feeble minds—need only look at NORAD today. The defense system built to keep the northern hemisphere safe from the endless winter of the nuclear species today shows a mythical object streaming across the stars with good will and cheer. Not just for Americans. Not just for Christians. Not just for true believers. No, Christmas Eve, the solstice, is for all people. Not just men. All people. Perhaps I’ve let my guard down just a little, and I’m letting my naiveté show just a bit much, but I do believe in that light. It may be that the tilt of the planet’s axis makes it inevitable, but a night when shepherds are startled and a woman brings hope to the entire world, we bask in what we deem a silent and holy night, knowing dawn will bring a longer day. And hopefully a world at peace.

Lunar New Years

Celebrating the New Year in the middle of winter is a strange idea, at first glance. As I have discussed before, January 1 is “Circumcision-style New Year,” based on the projected date of Jesus’ circumcision after the church had settled on December 25 as his birthday. In actuality, a winter New Year date is due to its proximity to the winter solstice, and the other popular contenders for the honor of the head of the year, historically, have been the spring and autumnal equinoxes. The matter gets more complicated when a culture has a lunar calendar since the sun and moon don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to their timing. That accounts, obviously, for a shortened February, but also for why a full moon doesn’t occur on the same day of each month. Now, I know little of Chinese culture, but I do know that Chinese New Year fell on January 28 this year, initiating the year of the rooster. Considering what had happened only eight days prior, this feels incredibly apt to me.

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Cultural diversity is a wonderful thing, and this nation is rich in it. You can, to pick a trite example, sample cuisines from around the world in a moderately sized town. Here in New Jersey getting onto a public transit bus will almost guarantee that you’ll hear at least one non-English conversation going on. Nevertheless I do have to confess that I don’t know what the year of the rooster represents in a Chinese context. As concepts cross borders they take on new associations and those who assign those new associations don’t represent those from the original land. So let it be here. Not knowing what the rooster symbolizes in China, I turn to its American expression—the cock. This is its year. The newspaper headlines read like a fortune cookie, in this distorted view of things.

To shift this metaphor to yet another cultural context—originally Jewish, but now appropriated by Christians around the world—think of Passover. For Jesus a night of betrayal. Peter, arguably Jesus’ best friend, denied three times in one night that he even knew his BFF. Cursing and swearing, according to the Gospels, he said, “I don’t know that man.” The cock crowed. It was around the spring equinox. A new year had begun. Within 24 hours, according to the story, Jesus was dead. We have much to learn from other cultures. The concepts change, however, when they’re stopped at the border.

Solstice Blues

The relief is so real that you can feel it with your fingers. Or brushing your cheek. The feeling of being done with another semester, and knowing you’ve got some time for recovery after the intensity of going flat-out for months at a time. I miss that feeling. As a guy who has often been accused of being “too intense” I tend to run pretty near the red line all the time. Pit stops are few and very far between. Once this vehicle’s in drive, there’s no stopping until the destination is reached. What do you do when there’s no clear destination? That’s what working for mere money is like. How do you know when you have enough? Just ask Mr. Trump. Too much is always too little. That’s the kind of world we live in.

Higher education, it used to be, was a place for people who believed in higher values than mere lucre. There was a time, historically, when we took transcendence seriously. The price (if you’ll pardon the analogy) that we’ve paid for letting transcendence go will become apparent. Those who believe only in what they see miss most of reality that swirls by them like a river under the ice. Yes, it still flows. Just ask the fish. There’s a wisdom outside our paltry economic efforts, if we’d only just get out to inquire of it.

Work is built around the foolish concept that you can never have enough. I have to think that our fear of a year of drought has deeply impressed itself on our psyche. Back in biblical times and up until just a couple of centuries ago people considered work to be farm work. Growing your own food. Building your own house. Knowing what to do in an emergency. If nature didn’t cooperate with that scheme what choice had you? Now, however, we labor for a concept as abstract as transcendence. When’s the last time you were paid with actual cash? What wouldn’t you pay for a little more time off? Time to stay in your pajamas all day and ponder what’s really real? Perhaps sleep until you’re not tired rather than awaking at the sound of a factory bell? The sun hasn’t risen by the time I reach my windowless office. When I step out again it’s already set. The solstice reminds me of the semester break that no longer exists. I have to believe, however, that under the ice the river’s still flowing.

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Solstices

Most cultures outside of the tropics, where the difference in lengths of days is noticeable and portentous, there is a celebration of the winter solstice. This day, of all in the year, is the shortest and tomorrow there will be more light than there was today. That light will continue to grow until the summer solstice when the slow decline back to darkness begins. Religions have their rituals for a reason, and the slow turn of the seasons is perhaps behind all major holidays, in some way. So as the seasons shift, we look for signs of light. And what a portentous year it has been. When we open the Monday morning paper to find out that the wrong Miss Universe (as if earth corners the market on beauty) was crowned, it rings of unspeakable darkness. Is it not equally dark that we still parade women before the camera to judge them by their appearance? Is it not a lack of light that says women have to flash thigh and cleavage in order to be as important as the tuxedo-covered males who ogle them? The days are short, my friends.

And if we can rip our eyes from one stageshow to another, the Republican candidates continue to engage in a battle of silliness that would make Caligula smile. Have we lost our ability to face serious issues? Just the other day I was commenting to my wife that publishing has a difficult time because reading is something few people seriously engage any more. I hope I’m not coming across as judgmental, since I like a good diversion as much as the next guy. Still, thinking through something that is not simple, where the answers are always more gray than either black or white, is becoming more essential in surviving a culture that finds what razor you shave with more important that how many people an assault rifle can take out at one go. For a nation with access to the resources we have, shouldn’t we think of ways of getting people to engage with sustained thought once they leave college? To bring back the light?

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Light comes in many forms. The sun is a symbol as well as an astronomical body. Artificial light, however, predominates in a world where nature tells us to slow down once in a while and sleep a little more. Only at the equator are all things equal. In days when it is suggested that reflecting photons in a mirror might conceivably produce real photons, and thus more light for the universe, I find it hard to sleep. Too much is happening for any one person to keep track of it all, and to have my few hours of sunlight occluded by the shenanigans of the media and its factotums feels like the longest night is indeed upon us. It is, for those with hope, also the beginning of light.

Away in a Manger?

The holidays are a time for getting together. At a friend’s house over the weekend, we were talking about nativity scenes. I mentioned a story about how a nativity scene had been missing the infant Jesus and he said he’d be right back with a solution. I have to admit that I’ve never seen Sweet Baby Jesus porter before. “Place that in your manger,” he said. I assume this is a seasonal brew, intended to draw the semi-religious toward a kind of holiday cheer. Now, blasphemy in a bottle is nothing new. In fact it’s quite common, I expect. Nevertheless, a bottle that says “One sip and you’ll claim the name” might be offering a salvation that it simply can’t deliver.

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Growing up, Christmas never had any connection with drinking. My father was an alcoholic, and inviting this particular spirit to the holidays seemed misguided. Still, I recognize that in many cultures tipples were a way of coping with the excessive periods of darkness. Even in these days of ubiquitous artificial lights, I find that the darkness just outside bears a considerable weight. We festoon our houses with colorful lights to ward off the night. We prepare special foods to take our minds from the bleakness outside the window. And yes, some turn to Sweet Baby Jesus to offer its own kind of shine.

The holidays mean many things to many people. The commercial aspects appeal less and less as the years go by, but having some time off work to be with family and collect my thoughts grows more important each year. What makes a day holy, I expect, is that you have things that are otherwise difficult to find. Life, for many, is a long series of denials of what they really want. When the holidays come, they indulge. Who am I to begrudge someone else of what makes their ordinary days sacred? Who indeed?