The Winter Solstice officially begins on December 21, 2016 at 10:44 a.m. As the earth’s northern hemisphere faces away from the sun on this day, the daylight hours are shorter and the nights are longer.
What does this mean for us as individuals? As a community? As spiritual beings?
There are many different religious and spiritual beliefs that incorporate light into this time of year, such as Hanukkah from the Jewish belief, which can fall any time between late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar. Its story takes place during the rededication of the Second Temple and the lack of untainted olive oil to keep the Menorah’s candles burning for even a single day. In spite of this, a miracle occurred and the oil burnt for eight days, which led the Jewish Sages to proclaim the Holy Days of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.
Christmas is another “Festival of Lights” of some sort: houses and Christmas trees alike are decorated with lights that make what seems like ordinary houses come alive. Originally, before the creation of electric lights, the tradition was to burn the Yule Log on the fireplace. In ancient times, this was done not only to bring warmth to people who were now experiencing darker nights, but was a symbol of a hope and promise that, with this being the longest night, the sun was now beginning to return to the land. The Yule Log stems from a Wiccan/Pagan belief system, but was also adopted by early Christianity, moving away from the symbology of the sun, and moving towards Jesus being the Light of the World.
Kwanzaa is another spiritual belief, created to bring a source of hope, strength and identity to the African American community. Kwanzaa utilizes candles, which are lit to gather the community/family who then discuss one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa (Unity: Umoja; Self-Determination: Kujichagulia; Collective Work and Responsibility: Ujima; Cooperative Economics: Ujamaa; Purpose: Nia; Creativity: Kuumba; and Faith: Imani).
Each of these festivals teaches us something about trust, hope and community. The Jewish tradition of Hanukkah teaches us to trust whatever is a source of strength for us. Even when we fear the darkness that may come upon us, as long as we can see a flicker of hope, even if the only thing we can hope for is the next hour or day, or “this too shall pass”, we will be able to make it.
Christmas not only teaches us about gathering together around a Christmas Tree or Yule Log, but it can also teach us about the Longest Night, and how, even in the darkest times when we feel alone and isolated, our Source of Strength and Hope is still with us. From the Hebrew Scripture of Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there…11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
Kwanzaa reminds us, regardless of race or creed, of the importance of community; of the history that gives us the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of the generations that have come before us, and the values those generations have learnt and pass down to us.
One thing that I always feel holds true is that, although December 21st will be the shortest day and longest night in the Northern Hemisphere, as Yule promises, the sun is beginning to make a return, fighting that darkness, and the daylight hours begin to increase. However, we often face some of the roughest and coldest months ahead of us as we wait for the promise of Spring to return the planet to the hope and celebration of new life. And until then, let us keep our own lights shining with the hope that, even in these dark and cold nights, when we come together, our light will give hope to each other, and we can begin to overcome the darkness and challenges we may face.