While the holiday season is a time of celebrations with family and friends, my regular readers will know that winter is not my favorite time of year. This is partly because of my love of summer and all that it entails, but the primary reason is because of the reduced amount of daylight. One of the big attractions that brought us to Coastal Georgia many years ago was not only the warm and sunny climate but also the fact that the days never get horribly short like they do in the UK in winter. In the land of my birth, sunrise is currently around 8am and sunset is before 4pm in London. Most days are gray and cold with no glimpse of sunshine. On the brighter side (pun intended), starting today the days get longer as the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere took place yesterday. The winter solstice occurs the moment the North Pole is tilted the furthest away from the Sun – 23.5 degrees, to be precise. The North Pole is in total darkness from October to March and northern Alaska and Scandinavia barely have any daylight at this time of year.
So it is no surprise that the holiday season is a time for bringing light to the darkness – literally and symbolically. Many cultures around the world have winter festivals that are in fact celebrations of light. In addition to Christmas, there’s Hanukkah with its brightly lit menorahs, Kwanzaa candles, and other traditions around the world.
Pagan festivals during this season of limited sunshine go back thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, the return of the Egyptian sun god Ra was celebrated to thank him for warming the land and crops. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia during the second half of December, a week-long festival honoring their god Saturn, including sacrifices, gift-giving and feasting. The Celts of the British Isles celebrated midwinter with Druid priests sacrificing a white bull and gathering mistletoe. In Northern Europe the Norse people called their winter solstice ‘Jul’ and customs such as the Yule log, the decorated tree, and wassailing (the singing of carols, sometimes with warm drink in hand) can all be traced back to Norse origins.
Yule celebrations have included light for thousands of years — candles, bonfires, and more. In Judaism, the candles lit during Hanukkah symbolize the miraculous oil that was found in Jerusalem’s temple when the Maccabees retook it from the Seleucid Empire. The traditional story is that Jerusalem’s temple had only a single day’s worth of oil but that it miraculously lasted for eight days until more could be obtained. The Menorah (nine-branched chandelier) holds the candles which are lit for eight consecutive nights, with the amount of light increasing each night. It symbolizes chasing away forces of darkness, which the faithful Jews did not with swords but in this case with light.
European Christmas traditions of light started as candles were attached to German Christmas trees in the 17th Century to illuminate the artistic decorations hanging on the tree. This tradition spread across Europe and into North America, and about 100 years ago glass balls and lanterns were introduced instead of candles. The invention of electricity revolutionized Christmas lights and in 1882 a friend of Thomas Edison displayed the first Christmas tree lit by electric lights. By the end of the century strings of Christmas lights were available for sale and the White House began using electric lights on the Presidential tree. These early versions were very expensive and also a fire hazard but technology improved a few years later to create safe lights and the price came down. Outdoor light displays began in the 1930s which has led to the creation of novelty inflatables and light displays featuring snowmen, icicles, reindeer, Santa Claus and more. I have to say that the first time I was in America for the Christmas season I could not believe the extravagance and imaginative displays of outdoor lighting which regular families installed at their homes. There is more information at www.history.com.
I will leave you with this nice holiday thought from an unknown author: “Christmas lights are like little hugs from Santa. They light up your spirit on a cold night”.
God Bless America, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
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