by KSG, Yale Divinity School Student & Grace Farms Faith Initiative Intern
December 21st marks the winter solstice, or the darkest day of the year. Throughout history, this time has been marked by a variety of religious and cultural celebrations across the world, from Diwali to Dongzhi, Soyal to Saturnalia, Inti Raymi’rata to Hanukkah, Koročun to Christmas, and Yule to Yalda. The world’s axial tilt and positional rotation around the sun guarantee that everyone in the Northern Hemisphere experiences similar natural phenomenon, inspiring traditions connected to light and darkness across the world.
In our present situation, these celebrations may look a little different. We must search for new ways of connection and community building through these cycles of darkness and light. While we can’t meet at Grace Farms for our usual celebration, Season of Light, digital offerings like this reflection might provide a different path into the spirit of the season.
The translucent glass of the River building facilitates a conversation between landscape and changing light, inviting us to pause and contemplate our surroundings – perhaps something unseen in the daylight comes alive in the darkness. But this experience isn’t limited to Grace Farms. Consider your personal encounters with the natural world throughout the day. Then spend some time outside at night in the darkness, and probably the cold. Find a place away from the presence of light, if possible. This might mean simply turning off the lights in your house or could require driving out of the city. Put your phone away and let your eyes get used to the dark. Can you see the stars and moon? What time did the sun set today, and how long did it take to become pitch black? What feelings are raised in this present moment? When you return inside, light a candle and watch the flickering flame and the smoke rise up. What does it illuminate?
Mary Moschella, Professor at Yale Divinity School, notes that Christmas aligning with the solstice allows one to “feel the wonder of the dark. It’s time set apart from business as usual, a chance to catch one’s breath, even for just one day, when we are altering our routines and paying attention to what it means to be alive.” This time of year stirs feelings of awe and wonder, recalling the poetic words opening the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The lighting of candles is an integral practice to the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, this year celebrated between December 10th – 18th. The holiday celebrates a miracle of light, where the menorah in the rededicated Temple in Jerusalem remained lit for eight days with just one day’s worth of oil. Rabbanit Leah Sarna, speaks about Hanukkah traditions and the spirit of hope, miracle, resilience, and outlasting expectations. The light from the Hanukkah candles should shine for all to see, illuminating homes and pouring out from windows to light up the street.
As each day of Hanukkah passes, another candle is lit. Every day, the light grows brighter.
As we strive to increase light in our own lives, the lack of natural light itself can be a challenge for many people. Mary Moschella describes this phenomenon: “Reduced light, reduced time outdoors, less exercise – those factors alone physiologically can have an impact on us, our sense of wellbeing, and our sleep patterns.” Though winter celebrations are meant to elevate moods and redress the stress of this time, they can also be stressful themselves. Grief also comes up at anniversary times, and holidays without loved ones can be especially challenging. Some traditions offer moments of recognition for these difficult emotions, such as Blue Christmas services, to honor the grief and loss people may be feeling during these seasons. Moschella offers suggestions of how we can care for ourselves and one another during this time, especially those that may be far away.
This holiday season, in the midst of all of the uncertainties and challenges this year brought, we hope that you can find grace and peace during this time. May you find comfort in the light of your home, and seek awe and wonder from the darkness.