This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…
It was the climax of Holy Name of Mary School’s Christmas pageant last week, the familiar refrain sung by almost the entire student body in the semi-darkness of the church, each voice accompanied by a glowstick. It’s not so much a song, but a chant, beloved by many for its simplicity and universality.
It’s an important time of year for light. We’ve already survived the darkest and shortest of winter’s days; the passing of the Winter Solstice on Sunday means that daylight hours will begin to increase, slowly but surely toward spring’s rejuvenation. But for as much as we crave light, we should also crave darkness.
Chances are you’ve not noticed much darkness lately. With Christmas tomorrow you’ve probably spent more hours than usual bathed in light beyond what the sun grants us daily. Christmas parties, marathon wrapping and baking sessions, overtime at work to ensure a few days’ peace and celebration and religious services have all kept us brilliantly lit well into the night and past our bedtimes.
It’s no surprise that the Winter Solstice and Christmas fall so closely together on the calendar; both, after all, celebrate the triumph of light over darkness. In prehistoric times and in more primitive societies, astronomy guided all important decisions; an increase in daylight hours could only mean good fortune. Christmas, in the Christian sense of the holiday, celebrates the arrival of the “light of the world,” God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, giving the faithful hope for goodness in the world.
The New York Times ran an interesting op-ed piece literally and figuratively on the Winter Solstice. In it, author Clark Strand reminds us of the importance of true environmental night, which, until the advent of artificial light, was a time for sleep, dreams and rejuvenation. Strand, a former Buddhist monk, suggested that our society is increasingly afraid of the dark; we are staying up later and lonelier thanks to electronic devices and 24-hour schedules, but we are left with little more than a world of rampant consumerism and a war on insomnia.
Strand believes we must reacquaint ourselves with darkness’s healing power against the fullness of our days, and — increasingly — nights. But at this time of year, it’s impossible to ignore the lure of a bright night. The evening landscape looks so different at Christmas, with the twinkle of lights, sparkle of decorations and rooms rearranged to accommodate the Christmas tree. Released from the shackles of routine and often lubricated by pleasurable food and drink, we become more animated and less inhibited. Faces are beautifully bathed in an unfamiliar yet flattering glow, and cheeks are flushed with artificial and bodily heat.
At some point we are forced to leave the light, to stumble back out into the darkness, crisp air and lonely streetlights a telling contrast. The fun must end; we must go home, unplug the tree and mince our way to bed to begin the recovery process. It can be a challenge to welcome the sun’s return, a signal to be productive, to face another busy day.
We mustn’t forget the figurative light and darkness of the season, either. Every good deed, every tiding of comfort and joy is amplified: this season can bring out the best in people, making our souls shine and our hearts swell. But any darkness that can seem the most pitch of blacks: loneliness and family stresses hit so hard at this time of year and, sadly and seemingly without fail, tragedy, man-made or natural, collectively dims our lights when they ought to be most bright.
Much like how nightfall comes so suddenly, so jarringly, at this time of year, the contrast of light and darkness is stark and, I would argue, necessary. We don’t know just how bright our world can be unless we experience darkness: joy, warmth and love don’t mean as much without first knowing misery, coldness and loneliness.
But darkness need not always be a bad thing, as Strand opines. Yes, we may push it away with work, revelry, religion and other obligations, but it always finds us, coaxes us back into a restorative state, readying us for the next round.
So yes, let your light shine this season, with all your heart, mind and soul. But much like how those glowsticks at the Christmas concert were rendered invisible once the lights were turned back on, don’t forget that you need a bit of darkness to make the season truly bright.