Even in my most cynical and misanthropic years, I could never bring myself to hate them Christmas lights. Just look at them!I acknowledge well that there are reasons, even if I don’t agree with them, to take shots at many of the other aspects of our varied traditions, but in all seriousness, why would decorating our cities and towns, homes and trees with pretty lights – at the darkest time of the year – be bad? How? I really wanna hear this.
I do not personally like – at all – either the darkness or the cold. I rail with defiance and mild despair against the light’s dramatic slipping away each fall. All winter, though it grows again, I curse it bitterly for failing to return faster. It’s a little different with respect to temperature, because once August draws to a close, I’m ready for things to get a little more mild, to be comfortable in jeans and a sweater again, to look cool in a new jacket. That lasts for a little while. Eventually, though, the climate grows uncomfortable enough that I am forced to make a choice: this year, will I resist and complain about the awful weather or will I ignore it and accept it and at least try not to let it bother me? (This year, it’s the latter. Last year it was the former.) Whichever I choose, it’s a fairly unpleasant and altogether too long exercise in endurance for me.
All of this gets suspended for Advent. For this one brief window of time right at the darkest moment, my objections are paused as I experience, with delight, the weight, magic, and majesty of this time.
The lights are pretty, of course, and decking out our world in this way is a positive activity in and of itself, but it’s always been much more than an aesthetic exercise. There’s a few different angles to choose from in laying out the meaning, but I think they all gesture at the same thing. We can consider the lights an act of defiance against the present triumph of darkness, or we can say the small but spectacular little lights dotting our earth like stars represent the light we continue to carry within each of us even in a time of darkness, or we can consider the lights a reflective, reverent tribute recognizing that the victory of the darkness is followed immediately by the beginning of the light’s return. We can choose all of the above, all at once or at different times, or add other options I haven’t thought to list; regardless, the little pretty lights exist in stark contrast, intentionally, against the long night.
The lights are a signal, whether we are aware of it or not, that the darkness is never total and is never permanent.
This contrast can be profoundly useful. I appreciate, at least for a few short and busy weeks, that the darkness makes it easier to notice and appreciate that inner light, that fire inside me that can’t be killed by winter and always lasts until spring. Devoting this kind of attention to what lies within allows us to more actively participate in the ending of one whole year and the beginning of the next. It’s the kind of light that makes it especially easy to see – so long as we take a minute to look – where we’ve been for the last twelve months, what we’ve done and left undone, what we’ve gained and lost, and then where we’re headed next. We can more easily take stock of ourselves, of the strength we inherently possess, of our great fortune in our continued presence in this living existence, and of what it’s truly all about.
That’s not all, though. There’s a very real risk of turning this whole thing a bit too soggy and austere. I’m reminded of an article I saw recently (honestly, I probably only read the headline and preview and maybe a couple paragraphs, but I can be a quick judge) and that I probably won’t be able to find again, but the thrust was that we surround ourselves with too much of the light, too much excitement, too much food and booze, too many gadgets and Christmas movies – that we are generally indulging in far too much stimulation for a time that should be dedicated solely to the kind of reverent reflection and recognition I describe above.
As someone who is a huge believer in the absolute necessity of celebration – and preferably, at least for me personally, celebration that involves at least some component of appropriate excess – this is a big WHY NOT BOTH? situation. Should we not congratulate and indeed reward ourselves for having survived another year, an accomplishment all its own, and even more so if we consider ourselves to have accomplished a thing or two above and beyond baseline survival? I say we deserve that much! Should we not surround ourselves with those who are most important and beloved to us and also then enjoy all the pleasures and fruits available to us – especially in such a magical and extraordinary time, when rules are suspended and extra privileges granted?
It’s not mandatory, but as your wizard, I strongly recommend not neglecting this side of this time. Take these opportunities! They do not exist year round. Make space and time for quiet reflection and reverence…but do your best to feast and party, too. That’s at least half of what holidays are for, and never let anyone tell you otherwise.