This will come as a possible surprise to anyone who knows me: I love the winter holiday season. This is mostly because it is such a special time to spend with my family around the Northeast, as we do the loop from Brooklyn to Toronto to Pittsburgh to spend the season with the people we love the most. But I also love this time of year because it is a season of light. No matter which side of my heritage I’m celebrating, this is a season of kindling light.
Hanukkah is the festival of lights itself, during which we light candles for the sole purpose of looking at them and celebrating the light they give. Yet Hanukkah is a festival celebrating a historical event, although it could well be related to the solstice. Being from a dark northern climate, I also feel kinship with the solstice festivals that began millennia ago as celebrations against the dark. What I love about the winter holidays is the celebration of light and life, the warding off of the cold and dark and the fear and sadness the winter elements bring. I love the winter solstice festivals that are basically a giant “f–k you” to Death.
We’re gonna get at LEAST 12 days of NOT FREEZING out of this Yule log
Growing up in a household heavy in English customs, I also have a deep nostalgia for the heavy use of greenery during a winter festival. We trimmed the living room with holly off the holly bush from the backyard, which was a nice counterpoint to the traditional fake Christmas tree (the kind from Sears, of course, that Dad bought in 1975). The use of these symbolic plants dates back to the Druids in the UK, and show understanding and respect of the changing of the seasons. I like having those traditions to celebrate and respect nature. After all, even with all our technology, all our artificial light, we still cannot stop the days from becoming shorter every year.
Recently, in researching Santa Claus’ origins to explain to Ben, I also ran across a great article linking Santa Claus to Odin, and his eight reindeer to the eight legs of Odin’s horse. I loved this concept. “Don’t take the Christ out of Christmas” is not nearly as cool a statement as “Don’t take the Odin out of Yule.” After all, the Norse were running England up until the Norman invasion in the eleventh century, and still had sizable pockets of influence well into the twentieth. It is completely plausible to me that these old Viking beliefs merged with the German traditions into the codified Merry Ye Olde English Christmas imagery forever preserved as documented by Charles Dickens.
At the heart of all these traditions though, we still see the light. We have the Yule Log. We have candles galore. We have the tradition of extravagance of light. Imagine, in an era where materials for candles are limited to bees wax or tallow, where light is expensive. Imagine lighting those candles with abandon, as a celebration of life, against the long, cold dark winter of northern places. It’s enough to make one want to sing for joy.
We light the Hanukkah candles and eat fried foods in a similar sense of joy celebrating the miracle of the oil that lasted eight nights. We say the prayers each night saying that we “kindle light”. This is where the two disparate halves of my heritage come together, in the kindling of light against the dark, and in the celebration of the shortest day of the year…and in the time we spend with the people we love in the process.
Speaking of which, we are back from our long, cold loop around the Northeast! It’s been another successful year of driving the wintry freeways from Brooklyn to Toronto to Pittsburgh. Those adventures, however, will have to wait for a future post.