‘Tis the Season of Light

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by Judith Albright

For centuries, firelight has been a symbol of spiritual enlightenment and the triumph of light over darkness during the dark days of December. Thus bonfires, candles and lamps have long been integral parts of mid-winter ceremonies and celebrations, both ancient and modern.

Many celebrations in ancient times were held in observance of religious holy days but in the Northern Hemisphere, but most were linked in some way to the winter solstice. Due to the earth’s tilt on its axis, this is the time of year when days are shortest and nights are longest.

To counter the darkness, Norse people kept bonfires blazing throughout the Yuletide season, and the Romans traditionally fastened candles to trees during the Saturnalia (an Ancient Roman festival held in honor of Saturn) as symbols of the sun’s return to earth. During their celebrations they also kept lamps burning in their homes and lighted candles in their windows to call back the sun and to ward off evil spirits. From ancient times, candles have also been a large part of Hanukkah, the traditional Jewish celebration of “The Feast of Light.” In Christianity, as early as AD 492, “Candlemas Day” (40 days after Christmas) was established as a memorial to the time when Jesus was presented in the Temple as “a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles…” (Luke 2:32). As Christianity spread, candles increasingly found a prominent place in religious observances.

In both churches and homes during the Middle Ages, it was the custom to set up and light one large candle on Christmas Eve in remembrance of the Star of Bethlehem. Some allowed the flame to burn only until sunrise when it was extinguished by the father or oldest member of the household. Others left the flame burning through the Twelfth Night (January 6) to encompass the entire Christmas season. It was also during the Middle Ages that the legend began about the Christ child wandering throughout the world on Christmas Eve searching for places to welcome him. Thus it became a common practice for devout Christians to place lighted candles on window sills to guide the baby Jesus from house to house.

Through the centuries this tradition grew, and on occasion it served more than one purpose. For example, during times of religious persecution in Ireland when priests were forced into hiding, Irish families placed a candle in a window to signify that priests were invited to conduct a religious mass or service in their homes. When this was questioned by the English authorities who occupied Ireland at the time, the Irish people offered the simple explanation that if Mary, Joseph and the Christ child came looking for a place to stay, the candle conveyed that they were welcome.

Candles have become part of Christmas traditions in many other countries as well. In the Ukraine, people place a candle in a loaf of bread to celebrate the bread of life. In France, the Holy Trinity is honored by molding three candles together to serve as a single Christmas light. It is a South American custom to place a candle inside a paper lantern that has drawings on it of the baby Jesus in a manger.

The practice of placing lights on a Christmas tree did not begin until sometime during the middle of the 17th century. It took two centuries for this custom to become widely established, beginning in Germany and then quickly spreading throughout Eastern Europe and finally reaching the United States. Candles were originally glued with melted wax to a tree branch or attached by pins, but eventually candleholders were used to secure them. It was not until 1882 that electric lights were used to light up a Christmas tree. That year Edward Johnson placed eighty small electric light bulbs on a tree in New York City, and as a result, by 1890 Christmas lights were being mass produced. By 1900, department stores were using the new electric lights to illuminate their Christmas displays.

German and French settlers who migrated to Louisiana in the 19th century commonly lit hundreds of bonfires along the Mississippi River, not only to guide Joseph and Mary on their way, but to enable Pa Pa Noel (the Acadian version of Santa Claus) to navigate through the thick river fog to bring presents to the children.

In the American Southwest, luminarias appeared historically around the 16th century as a Spanish tradition of lighting bonfires along roads and in churchyards to guide people to midnight mass on the final night of Las Posadas. Las Posadas is a festive celebration first introduced to indigenous people in Mexico by European missionaries, and represents a reenactment of the story of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in Bethlehem. The custom has persisted into modern times with “farolitos,” the Spanish word for “little lanterns,” replacing the bonfires. Farolitos (often referred to as luminarias) are little paper sacks partially filled with sand and a lighted candle that are placed atop roofs and walls and set along sidewalks and driveways as a symbolic way to guide travelers to their destinations at Christmastime.

Just like the candles that glow brightly within the farolitos, each of us has a light that shines within us. Too many of us hide our light from the world and continue to walk in darkness, stumbling along our way, fearing to reveal our talents and share our gifts with others who might judge us and find us lacking. Yet the darker the world becomes, the more our shining lights are needed. We are all beings of light, and as we re-awaken during this time of rapid change, we are beginning to remember the truth of who we are — spiritual beings having a human experience.

It is through the connection to our inner light that we are able to help ourselves and others not only survive but thrive as we move into a new order of consciousness. During this season of light, it is up to each of us to cast off our self-limitations and smallness and go forth in the world, illuminating our own path and making the way for others whose lights have grown dim or extinguished.

Judith Albright is a stress management specialist who uses energy healing techniques to help people counteract stress, release trapped emotions, and change negative subconscious beliefs. She is also the author and facilitator of a course entitled “Taking Control: How to Overcome Limitations and Create a Limitless Life.” More information is available at www.limitlessliving.org or www.stressfreewitheft.com