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I live in Maine, where darkness looms so absolutely that anyone with a human soul yearns for radiance. It's hard to imagine staggering through a whole Maine winter without some sort of festival involving treats, greenery, and plenty of lights—lights spangling the leafless trees along downtown streets, lights draping our neighbors' houses in ever more extravagant displays, lights outlining the gunwales and cuddy shacks of the lobster boats in the harbors, lights glowing in the little Unitarian church in Rockland that sponsors my work as a community minister. Come December, both the devout and the merely nominal Christian will drag an evergreen tree indoors and drape it with lights, burn yule logs, and fire up the Advent candles. Menorahs glow in the windows of even nonobservant Jews, and I have noticed that members of Maine's small population of African Muslims lavishly illuminate their homes at the autumnal end of Ramadan. ("Do your relatives back in Sudan buy so many fairy lights for Eid al-Fitr?" I asked a Sudanese acquaintance, and he shrugged, saying, "This is how we do it in Maine.") If Buddhists need an excuse, December 8 is the day the Buddha attained enlightenment.
We put faux candles in the windows as a sign of welcome, carry real ones house to house as we sing carols, and on Christmas Eve even atheists are known to participate in that lovely church ritual of passing a flame from taper to taper, from hand to hand, until the sanctuary is filled with a warm, loving light.
All this makes perfect sense if you live in northern New England or, for that matter, Sweden. But why should the Spaniard or Floridian kindle the fires of a thousand electric lights in December, as if the most urgent priority is to banish the lethal darkness? Why, when I was small and my family lived abroad, in places where shade was rarer and thus more highly prized than light, did my mother, as Christmas approached, teach her offspring songs about angels appearing in a dark sky, and do her best to conjure a world in which darkness was a danger to be vanquished by the power of dawn?
The answer is simple: Light is life. This is true for all people in all climates and all times. And it explains why for thousands of years people of all religions and no religion have come together in mid-December to celebrate the sun. We are taught that Christmas marks the day of Jesus' birth, but even if someone (Mary and Joseph?) had noted the date, Biblical scholars suggest that by the evidence offered in Saint Luke's gospel, Jesus was actually born in autumn (since that was the time of Roman taxation) or in spring (since that was the time of lambing and "shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock"). The true origin of Christmas was more likely the winter solstice—when, after a long autumn of increasing darkness, the Earth tilts into the blessed cone of sunlight, and the days begin to lengthen once more.