December 2021: Light in the Darkness
I am going to cheat with this blog entry in that I am going to use someone else’s words—mainly because I can’t say it any better myself. At the very start of this holiday season (which for me is the end of November, typically the first Sunday of Advent—albeit rooted in religion, but I like to make use of its spiritual focus), I read a book entitled Christmas: A Short History From Solstice to Santa by Andy Thomas (2019). A lovely small volume that respectfully explores the journey this holiday has made from ancient roots to religious rituals to commercial excesses. I highly recommend this literary gem if you ever need a bit of perspective this time of year. So here are his concluding words from the section he titled “A Moment of Stillness.”
“Christmas offers a rare liberating breakdown of normality, with its glowing lights and colours, nostalgic aromas, distinctive food, and warming drinks. It also gives the pleasures of opening presents and watching others receive them, seeing the gleeful faces of children as they tear the wrapping off in a whirl, the healthy indulgence of having a little harmless misrule. If the thrill of Christmas has been forgotten, it is worth remembering the magic and joy many of us felt as children and seeing the festival through those eyes again.
If you stop to look beyond the paraphernalia of the modern Christmas and think about how this festival can make you feel, there remains a tangible aura around it that is easy to miss in all the rush. Children experience its purity the most, but without too much effort, the atmosphere of the season can still touch the hearts of adults. There is an undeniably distinctive quality about this annual nexus point. Perhaps something about the solstice itself might one day be identified to explain it. Maybe it is a subtle human response to the qualities of winter light and weather, or even the psychic accumulation of eons of focus on this celebration. The devout see the divine at work. Whatever it may be, there is something unique about the annual cycle we now call Christmas.
If Christmas is, in the end, a feeling above anything else, then it is worth trying to find a moment over the festive period to tune into it. This is not always easy for those who have to juggle entertaining, decorating, wrapping, and cooking; but if you consciously select a time to suspend all of that for just a few minutes, you can create a small eye of calm at the centre. One useful opportunity comes in the early hours of Christmas Day itself (or Christmas Eve, depending on your custom), something churches tap into with midnight services. It is a time when a stillness starts to fall: roads begin to empty, revellers make their way home, and excited children are finally persuaded to sleep. A collective buzz of hushed anticipation, and a tangible quietness unlike any other, combine for a few hours as the Silent Night arrives. How, then, to best use this little window?
To create a valuable moment of stillness, find a snug and tranquil place, perhaps by the tree, fireside, or crib, turn the room lights low, and just be with Christmas. Within a few hours, the delightful madness of the day will begin and another opportunity may not arise.
Your thoughts might drift to all the many different facets this festival has sparkled with over the centuries, from the ancients standing ready to welcome the first discernible signs of the sun’s return, to civilizations marking the births of their messiahs or commemorating wild hunts across the sky, from the taking down of normal boundaries and indulging in unfettered celebration, to considering the needs of others and putting animosity aside. All of it has, in one way or another, been a celebration of light in the darkness. Whether people see that light as the radiant sun, astrological signs in the heavens, the Star of Bethlehem, the divine illumination of a son of God, the grace of Saint Nicholas, or the glow of Santa’s sleigh as he rides through the sky, the message remains the same.
Each tiny glowing light, albeit just wire and plastic or wax and wick, can be a reminder that the smallest glimmer in the shadows can lift spirits and offer new hope for the future. This simple ceremony of rebirth each December, marked with laughter, contemplation, music, generosity of spirit, revelry, and feasting, has been a crucial support to the cultures that celebrate it throughout their many trials and challenges. There is no indication that this expression of determined optimism will be changing anytime soon.
If too many plastic reindeer and all the commercial excesses of Christmas can distract from its wider good, we can always make the choice to turn our gaze inward to its real meaning—a meaning that you can decide on.
People don’t always get to be where they would like to be on Christmas, and sometimes they have others to care for or can’t spend it with those they would like to—or can’t spend it with anyone at all. But you can get the Christmas you deserve in the best sense—in your heart and soul. For in reality, this is the only place where the act of celebration really resides, immune to outside influence. You choose. Christmas can be what you want it to be, wherever you are, and whether your celebration is grand or modest.
[This book has] attempted to trace the origins and evolution of a festival that, for all the many forms it has taken, remains at the centre of the year in many cultures and thus the lives of everyone living within them. Hopefully, in journeying through its development—and sometimes its travails—you will have found renewed worth in this strange and wonderful occasion that we call Christmas.”
Wishing you and yours
A Very Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël, Wesołych Świąt, Buon Natale,Christmas: A Short History From Solstice to Santa by Andy Thomas (2019)
Καλά Χριστούγεννα, Feliz Natal, Mele Kalikimaka, Frohe Weihnachten,
Glædelig Jul, Nollaig Shona Dhuit, Zalig Kerstfeest, Meri Kurisumasu,
Mutlu Noeller, God Jul, Feliz Navidad!