Festivals of Light Usher in the New Year
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
December 23, 1998
Two inter-related questions define, for me, the significance of this time
of year. First question: Why is it that we turn on so many festive lights
during December? Second question: Why do we choose to establish the
transition from one year to the next at this particular time?
Most might answer the first question with "Christmas, of course.
We like to put up lots of colorful lights to visually shout the celebration
of the birth of Jesus Christ." But look around. Christmas is only one of
many celebrations involving lights and bright decorations held during
December. For Jewish people it is Hanukkah and candles. In Sweden it
includes Saint Lucia's Day with lights to compensate for dark of winter.
Zoroastrians celebrated the festival of Sada, lighting huge bonfires at
sunset, the blaze of fire representing victory of light over darkness and
good over evil. Latvian homes are brightly decorated to commemorate the
return of light following winter solstice. Ancient Romans celebrated
Saturnalia, a wild weeklong unrestrained party. Here in America various
Pueblo groups make elaborate preparations and perform sacred rites that
relate to the reversal of migration of the Sun so that life might continue.
When we get down to fundamentals, the reason people in the Northern
Hemisphere have always felt the need for additional light in what we now
call December is the fact that solar light has waned. With the Sun moving
lower in the sky, each day becomes shorter and dimmer. What light does
flow down is noticeably weaker, hitting our part of the world from a lower
angle, becoming diminished and spread out over larger areas. Weather
responds, and all life feels the change.
Many plants lose their leaves or wither and die. Some creatures
burrow into holes or find shelter deep inside caves to wait out the colder
Humankind seeks solace in numbers. We huddle together around our
hearths in comradeship, song and prayer, feeling each other's warmth and
love more intimately and intensely than we do at other times of year. We
tend to feel greater need for each other now than at times when abundant
solar energy comes down from heaven. And in all our celebrations of life,
of faith, and of each other, we light electrical and other fires to
compensate for the solar energy we depend upon. Our religious reasons for
all of this might differ, but buried within them is the need to rekindle
our faith that the Sun will turn on the horizon to bring back warmth,
abundance and the conditions we need for survival on this planet.
Today we know that longer and brighter days will return following
winter solstice, but humans have not always known that. Not so very long
ago the fires were lit in belief that if we did not do such things the Sun
might keep right on going south until daylight vanished. Indeed, people
had learned that regions farther north had no daylight at all during this
season of the year. Call it superstition, call it celebration, call it
whatever you wish; the fact remains that we cling, in ever changing forms,
to rituals with roots in the long ago when people did not comprehend that
these cycles of nature resulted from the tilt of Earth's axis and its
movement in a great orbit around a star.
This brings us to the second question: Why do we celebrate New
Years--completion of another trip around the Sun--at this time of year.
Some groups have marked the change of year at other times, usually one of
the equinoxes or solstices.
But some American Plains tribes thought of the year beginning with
the first snow, running through the winter, spring and summer and ending
when the snow flew again. Still others have marked the new year with the
first signs of spring. Both of these involve beginning the year with what
is called a "cross-quarter date," that is midway between a solstice and
equinox. This has been true throughout much of Europe as well. In that
part of the world you still hear people refer to what we call winter
solstice as "mid-winter," and summer solstice as "mid-summer."
So why does most of the world now celebrate New Years with the
coming of January? The fundamental reason is that in the Northern
Hemisphere where such traditions developed and spread even into the
southern hemisphere we have just passed the shortest, coldest and darkest
days that culminate with the December solstice. Once we have moved through
that critical date we can observe the growth of solar energy in the
Northern Hemisphere. We have chosen to celebrate one more trip around the
Sun at the time of transition from increasing darkness and cold to
brightness and warmth.
Thus, the answer to both questions--the reason for festive lights
and for the turn of the year--is the same: this is the most critical
transition we observe each and every year. This is the time when waning
light changes to waxing light, when shortening days shift to lengthening
ones, and all of this will be followed by warmer days, by reappearance of
colorful flowers, songs of birds and abundant food. There is no question
about it: for those of us residing north of the equator, this is the time
of year that most of all deserves to be celebrated with lights and songs of
faith, of love for each other and for all the forces and blessings that
power our lives.