We recently reached the winter solstice, the point when the North Pole is tilted the farthest away from the Sun. For us in Illinois (and the rest of the Northern hemisphere) that means that December 21st was the longest night and shortest day of the year. As evening now begins to creep across the sky before 5pm, it is no wonder that the symbols of the holidays we celebrate this time of year involve light.
One of the most enduring symbols of the season is the candle. During Hanukkah (also known as the Festival of Lights) a candle is lit on the menorah for each of the eight nights of the holiday: each candle can only be lit from the ninth candle known as the shamash, or the servant candle. These eight lights symbolize the eight evenings the lamp oil miraculously replenished itself after the Jews reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem from the Syrians in 165 BCE. The celebration of Kwanzaa also involves the lighting of candles to commemorate the holiday. Seven candles are lit on a kinara, each of them representing the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-
determination, responsibility, cooperativeness, purpose, creativity, and faith. Soon, many Christian churches will have candle-lit ceremonies to commemorate the birth of the baby Jesus. They also will have the four candles lit on the Advent wreath that marks the season of waiting and anticipation of the Christmas holiday.
Another symbol of the holidays is the star. I grew up near Bethlehem, PA (inevitably, there is also a Nazareth, PA nearby). One of my favorite things about the season was the giant star located on South Mountain, up above the city (pictured above: photo credit alan(ator), A. Strakey). The original star was installed in a ceremony in 1937, the same year Bethlehem conferred upon itself the moniker "Christmas City, USA". I'd always enjoy seeing the star almost anywhere I went in the valley below South Mountain. It made me think of hope, peace, and expectation as it represented the star that was said to shine above the original town of Bethlehem guiding those in search of the baby in the manger.
So, candles and stars can be symbols for many things: hope for the future, reflection on the past, introspection of self, and freedom from oppression, among others. What if we could become lights ourselves? What if we could all be shamash candles, seeking to serve others and illuminate their lives as much as our own? Whether you are religious or not, the reason of this holiday season is to bring light into this darkest of natural seasons, including letting friends and family know how important they are to us, and to possibly even include strangers in our light. In a perfect world, this would be done year-round, but things being as they are, we are lucky to have this time of the year to remind us of what that world could look like.
I don't often quote Roy Rogers, or his wife, but Dale Evans had this to say: "Christmas, my child, is love in action."
My wish for all of us is to shine brightly and love actively in this season of celebration.