There isn’t a culture that doesn’t have one. In the deep darkness of winter, the wind grows cold and the sun disappears in mid-afternoon. Our senses crave light as much as they crave warmth. The Hindus celebrate Dwali, Scandinavians celebrate Santa Lucia, and Jews celebrate Hanukkah, pagans celebrate Yule and Christians celebrate Christmas. Perhaps it’s the primal affection for fire as much as the beauty of the small flames. Everyone lights candles. We celebrate.
I am lucky enough to have friends celebrating all these holidays, and my own personal belief system stands on the fact that if people are together to share light and warmth, that’s where I want to be. Humanity is a wonderful religion all on it’s own, particularly when it’s cold and dark.
In our own American tradition, there are the lights on the houses, making the neighborhoods feel festive in the darkness. As I was walking home with my daughters from their school holiday concert, we sipped the hot chocolate purchased from the PTA, and got more excited with every bright display that we passed.
“Look Mommy,” my little one called out “they have a snowman!” Sure enough, a tall plastic snowman lit from within was placed out on the lawn. I remembered the first time my and sister and I built a snowman, so long ago and far away. We tried to follow the examples that we had seen in the comic strip Peanuts, where Charlie Brown and Linus rolled up huge snow balls and then parked them on top of each other in a stack of three. We did fine with the base, but could not lift the second one, and ended up kicking it apart to repack it one cold handful at a time. There was a carrot available for a nose, but the eyes were rocks rather than coal, and the little pebbles we picked for his smile kept falling off, so we retreated inside for some soup. We spent the rest of the afternoon inside, playing Monopoly and arguing over what to name the snowman, until he disappeared into the darkness of the afternoon.
My girls think that snow is like fairy dust, and while it is in many ways, they have never lived with the biting cold, the crushed ice that creeps into the space between the end of your sleeve and the beginning of your mitten, the face-numbing wind that makes your nose disappear. They complain about how cold it is walking home when I’m sure it can’t even be below fifty. When I tell them my stories of my East Coast childhood, I focus on the magic of the white winters, and not the hazards of the black ice. But the lights in our neighborhood keep us focused on the holidays, and not the weather.
“Check out the little tiny Christmas trees! They are so cute!” The girls exclaimed over each new set of lights, and I had to agree. When we passed a house with a Christmas tree in the window, a menorah lit up on the front lawn, a reindeer on the porch and a Santa surfboard outlined in lights, we all laughed together. “They must celebrate everything,” my big girl said, “just like us.”
Because the church we attend is liberal denomination that focuses on the power of humanity rather than the power of divinity, we celebrate any and every holiday on the calendar. As someone who was raised to be Catholic out of tradition rather than conviction, the human element is what’s most compelling to me. I still enjoy the ceremony of a Midnight Mass, but to me, it’s the people filling the pews and not the ones attending to the altar that make the hour sacred.
We finished our walk home singing the Bart Simpson version of “We Three Kings” and laughed until we could almost see our breath hanging in the air. After we hung our jackets up and traded our clothes for pajamas, I lit some candles.