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.
As a seminary student, I was vaguely aware of these roots: I knew that in ancient times the solstice was celebrated as the "birth day" of various pagan sun gods and that the celebrations were often riotous affairs, full of orgiastic drinking and sexual license. I knew that Christians in the Roman Empire specifically chose December 25 to celebrate Christ's birth in order to compete with the Roman celebration of the solstice, known as the birthday of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun. (The cult of Mithra—a Persian god of light, truth, and goodness—was also popular back then; in Mithraic cults, the solstice was the day that Mithra was born. In images from pre-Christian times, the Queen of Heaven holding an infant sun god can easily be mistaken for Mary holding an infant Jesus.) I also knew that the rituals of sun worship were gradually reconfigured and renamed as Christian, the solstice celebration becoming Christ's Mass, or Christmas, and the Roman weeklong Saturnalia festivals, which involved feasting, dancing, and the giving of gifts, eventually becoming the Twelve Days of Christmas. But I was stumped by the few days' gap between Christmas and the solstice; as drunk as the ancient pagans got, they managed to hold soberly to the celestial calendar, reliably celebrating the solstice on December 20 or 21, so why didn't the Roman Christians follow suit?
It turns out that by the Julian calendar, which Julius Caesar introduced in 45 B.C., the shortest day of the year was December 25, the turning point when the light began to increase. Centuries later, after the Gregorian calendar came along to reflect a 16th-century understanding of astronomy, December 25 would be permanently separated from the solstice. But though the connection is now hidden, it endures: Christmas is deeply linked to the human desire to mark the return of light.
And it's not just Christmas. The indigenous people of Mexico and Japan, China and Ireland celebrated the day of the winter solstice, too, because light equals life. For the same reason, many scholars believe ancient Brits were driven to haul enormous stones over great distances to designated sites, and arrange them in configurations to align with the solstice sunset. How, exactly, their culture described that wondrous, vital ball of fire in the sky is open to debate. Was theirs a sun god with a Hugh Grant accent? We don't know. For me, it's enough to think that the builders of Stonehenge expended incredible energy and effort to mark and celebrate the winter day on which the light returns.
Recently, in my capacity as chaplain to the Maine Warden Service, I responded to a search for a 10-year-old who was lost overnight in the wooded and mountainous terrain in the western part of the state. This blonde, bespectacled child—I'll call her Susan—had eaten breakfast surrounded by cousins at the kitchen table in her grandmother's house. It was to be a late-summer weekend full of relatives and activities, and the grandmother was preoccupied with the details of hospitality; she nodded absently when Susan announced plans for a morning's adventure ("like Dora the Explorer!"). After the adults noticed the little girl was missing, search parties were sent into the woods, but Susan did not turn up. The approach of night at last persuaded the adults to call 911.
In darkness, the Maine Warden Service arrived at the scene to begin the complex process of organizing an efficient search and rescue operation. Small teams of wardens with and without K-9s went out on quick, urgent sorties to places whose proximity to the "point last seen," or whose hazards (an old well, a piece of trail that snaked along a rocky cliff) made them "high priority." But the enveloping darkness inhibited a broader, more thorough search, even as it intensified the parents' fear almost beyond enduring.
As chaplain, I reassured them constantly. "The air is warm. She's a smart kid," I repeated over and over as the long hours passed. "She won't have a comfortable night—she'll be chilly and probably scared—but she'll be all right."
In my head, I believed this, but the windows of the command post were dark squares of glass that could reveal nothing, and my heart was uneasy.
> "Couldn't there at least have been a moon?" Susan's mother cried.
Human beings are creatures of light. Ours is a species that relies heavily on our vision as we scan for danger and search for food, for shelter, and for each other. A bat can maneuver through black air with astonishing quickness, relying on the data received through its ears. By a single, well-placed sniff, a dog can discern all sorts of delightful and relevant information about her loved ones' health and well-being. Humans have ears and noses, too, but when it comes to gathering the information that makes a difference between life and death, in most cases we need to see. No wonder darkness discourages and depresses us, no wonder light is the first creation of the Bible's God! Without light, there can be no life, no love, no nothing.
> A bright morning sun rose, gladdening the hearts of all who searched, and rousing Susan from her makeshift bed beneath a pine tree. It didn't take long to find her once the sun was up. And after she was restored to her mother's embrace, her father took a photograph of her, surrounded by beaming wardens. Sunlight bounces off the lenses of her little round glasses, and makes a halo of her pale gold hair.
Even with all of modern technology at our disposal to conquer darkness, at times like these we feel our kinship with the ancients, even those who lived in places where shade was much appreciated. The description of Jesus as radiant, as "the light of the world," taps into a part of the human soul formed long ago.
> As autumn deepens into winter, the gloom that so commonly afflicts our spirits might be thought of as a kind of empathy for all our forebears who regarded the increasingly brief and pallid visits of the winter sun with anxiety. Should the sun decide to make its austral sojourn below the far horizon permanent, the ultimate source of life would be lost forever.
I live in Maine, but—like other children of the 20th century—I've had the not-uncommon experience of visiting lands that no longer seem quite so faraway as they once may have. I hang ornaments from Thailand and Hong Kong on my Christmas tree, and the strings of lights that drape the tree are joined by strings of paper flags from Denmark, and a garland of miniature Tibetan prayer flags. In my lifetime, it has become normal to mail Christmas cards with stamps that celebrate Kwanzaa, a holiday that had not even been invented when I was born. And yet the image on the stamp is one of candles, their bright flames ringed with light.