This weekend will see two major calendar events coincide: Winter solstice was Saturday and Hanukkah starts Sunday night. Mid-winter festivals have been part of our human tribal existence for epochs. Evidence of this is found at sites of worship around the globe that remain both astronomically accurate and sacred. These rituals may have arisen from an inner need to combat boredom or distract anxious minds. In the northern hemisphere they perhaps arose from a deeper need to challenge the fears that darkness seems to evoke in humans and replace them with hope. Or, possibly they were the result of collective observations and inferences of priests and shamans who helped determine when crops should be planted and/or harvested or when populations of animals consumed for food would be more abundant.
What is amazing to me is that over all the centuries of observance these events continue to be celebrated even as societies have grown away from sacred, nature-driven observations and transitioned into secular, commerce-driven ones. For example, even though I grew up with a Christmas tree, it was many years before I learned of its connection to the pre-Christian traditions of the Yule log. And while I knew that Hanukkah was the Festival of Lights, it was years before I realized its minor level of importance in the Jewish calendar, assuming as I did that it was just a Jewish Christmas.
In recent years I have begun to celebrate winter solstice as a way of reassuring myself that the warm days of summer will return. My mood actually shifts knowing that it is getting lighter earlier and the sun stays around longer. I do not actually feel the incremental difference for several months, but knowing that the sun is up a bit longer seems to be enough. I wonder whether my ancestors experienced something similar?
This year, Hanukkah (Festival of Lights) falls the day after solstice. This festival marks the miracle of a single-day’s supply of oil used to keep the Temple light burning for a whole 8 days – the time needed to press more oil. I have a small idea of what it would be like to be concerned that I would not have enough oil to light a sacred lamp for eight days. I learned this during the power outages I experienced this year as a consequence of the fires here in northern California.
Without power, I had to rely on the sun to determine when things needed to be done. Nights were exceptionally long and days way too short. While the sky was obscured with smoke and limited what I could see, I found myself disoriented and not able to gauge what I was supposed to be doing when. Without access to TV or radio, I was aware that I marked the passage of time differently and experienced a slowing of all things.
I am saddened that my awareness of time no longer depends on transits of the sun, but is now dependent on pre-holiday sales schedules, color-coded sales days like Black Friday, and football schedules. I am saddened that I pay more attention to a screen than the sky. I am saddened that I have lost this connection to nature and the sense of magic that is found in the heavens.
I have friends who are Jewish and who will be lighting the Hanukkah candles this week and making latkes. I know of some Wicca folks who will be burning a Yule log and celebrating the return of the sun. That these traditions continue to hold meaning and provide connection is inspirational to me. It reminds me of the power of ritual and how participating in ritual reinforces belief and builds community.
We need some magic right now. We seem to be lacking in reasons to come together and experience support and reassurance. It would be a good thing to spend time outside at night looking at the sky and contemplating where and when the sun will arise. This just might be a reason to come together.
Lighting candles in honor of a miracle or lighting them as a talisman against the dark are both powerful statements of faith. Faith that the sun will return and faith that important things can outlast apparent limitations. Ritual is a means of turning faith into action. And action is one of the most profound ways to manage anxiety.
Astronomers, astrologers, rune casters, and tarot readers can divine a special confluence of energy in the heavens at this moment in time. What will we make of this? I believe it is more than coincidence that solstice, Hanukkah and Christmas all fall within a week of each other this year. Will we succumb to the divisiveness that seems so prevalent or will we come together in a spirit of collaboration and take a stand against the darkness again? Holding on to the promise that the sun will rise and stay in the heavens a bit longer each day. Holding the possibility that the oil will burn brightly and last until a new supply can be procured. Holding on to the possibility that someone among us will lead us out of our suffering.
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do know that the power of ritual and coming together are necessary acts to reinforce and reassure in times of doubt. I invite you to spend some time looking up at the night sky this week. Engage with others in the rituals that sustain you and bring you hope. Light a candle against the darkness, keep a Yule log burning in your fireplace, sing a song of joy at the birth of a Savior – whatever connects you to the belief that tomorrow the sun will rise.