Putting mystery back in the holidays of miracles and light


December’s mainstay holidays are cloaked in mystery and miracles. Darkness to light summarizes the current holiday season theme regardless of which ones you observe.

Hanukkah, Christmas, and even the winter solstice share those common qualities. They each come with their own history, a bit of mystery, and a requisite for reverence. The three even overlap in time, traditions, and symbols.

Hanukkah and Christmas each have deep, overlapping religious roots, while the winter solstice has pagan origins. All three, however, connect winter’s darkness with some concept of light. In fact, the triumvirate celebrates light in authentic, yet distinctive practices.

Besides illuminating light in the year’s darkest time, this triune of holidays has another commonality. The celebration of all three can last for days in keeping their specific purposes.

The winter solstice occurs when the sun reaches its farthest southward point for the year. That is precisely 9:19 p.m. EST on December 21. In Universal Time, the winter solstice is December 22 at 4:49 a.m.

The winter solstice marks the latest dawn and the earliest sunset. It is the longest night and shortest day for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. Of course, it’s just the opposite for those south of the equator.

History and archeology show us that earth’s early peoples recognized this critical point in whatever way they marked time. They understood that the sun’s path could be predicted on a regular route across the sky.

Archeological wonders like England’s Stonehenge and Peru’s Machu Picchu stand as evidence of this. Indigenous peoples in America’s southwest also marked the end of darkness in similar light-filled ceremonies.

Historians are still unraveling the mysteries of these cultural rituals. Fire and light were essential symbols in most of these ancient celebrations. I marvel at how those two entities connect to Hanukkah and Christmas.

This year Hanukkah is celebrated by the Jewish faith from December 22 to 30. Hanukkah is the commemoration of a historic miracle involving light.

The Jewish holiday arose after the temple in Jerusalem was recaptured from cruel ruler Antiochus. Wanting to rededicate the holy temple, the Judah victors found only enough olive oil to burn sacred candles for one night. Mysteriously, the menorah candle burned for eight consecutive nights, establishing the miracle of Hanukkah.

Christmas, of course, is December 25, most likely assigned that date to coincide with the winter solstice and Hanukkah celebrations, according to some historians. They reasoned that if the shepherds were guarding the grazing sheep, the season would have been one other than winter.

Regardless, Christmastime is a celebration of another kind of light. It, too, is rooted in a miracle, that of Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus, meaning, “God with us.”

Christians begin the Yuletide season with the Advent preparation four weeks ahead of Christmas Day. Some sects of Christianity then extend the celebration to January 6 or Epiphany or Old Christmas, which the Amish humbly celebrate.

For me, in this blend of holidays, the light brings anticipation of better things to come: lighter, longer days, a hope for a better, sunnier new year, the joy of personal peace by walking with the light, and the love of all Creation.

The vibrant spirits of the season, miracle and mystery, gently weave the interconnected holiday celebrations together with the threads of hope, joy, peace, and love. Will we allow ourselves to be wrapped lovingly in this warm garment more radiant than the brightest star?

I pray that the mystery of miracle envelops you and yours in joy and light this holiday season.

Winter solstice sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

In the season’s darkness, let your light shine

early snow
What’s wrong with this picture?

By Bruce Stambaugh

Residents of northeast Ohio have now tasted both the Thanksgiving Day turkey and the season’s first snow. The holidays are indeed upon us.

As we prepare to head into the year’s final month, holiday lights twinkle inside and outside homes and businesses alike. Even without radiating any substantial heat, they warm hearts nevertheless.

Most holidays in December focus their celebration around the theme of light just as the daylight diminishes. The days are in fact the shortest of the year.

Advent candles
Advent candles.
I’ve always found it more than a bit ironic that in the darkest part of the year, our secular and religious holidays glow with light. In fact, these important days gather together as if they were competing for our attention as the calendar year draws to an end.

Given the state of the world today, these celebrations of light are just what the doctor ordered. Earth’s inhabitants need as much light at they can get.

It’s only fitting that the major celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah, and the winter solstice all squeeze together in late December. It’s like a hidden magnet pulling them into the light itself. I don’t mean to be too jocular about these simultaneous celebrations. Just the opposite is true.

Christians consider Advent, the weeks leading up to and just after Christmas Day, as holy, sacred, magical. My Jewish friends rightly believe the same about Hanukkah.

Those who celebrate the winter solstice as Yule have a practical reason for making merry. From that point forward, daylight increases little by little each day.

It’s all very human of us to acknowledge the importance of light in our lives just when we have the least of it. Doing so gives us hope in the midst of darkness.

Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish festival also known as the Festival of Lights. One candle is lighted each day on the nine-candle menorah. Hanukkah means rededication and annually commemorates the Jewish struggle for religious freedom.

Chrismtas drama
Star over Bethlehem.
Christmas also is a commemoration. Lights of many kinds fill its traditions. The star in the east that hovered over Bethlehem, birthplace of the Christ child, is reflected on Christmas cards, and in displays, plays, poems, stories, and musicals.

Candle lighting services, often held on Christmas Eve, symbolize the birth of Jesus, the Christians’ declaration of the true light of life. In fact, four churches in Millersburg, Ohio will hold a Candlelight Walk on the evening of December 9 to help usher in the season.

My energetic wife had the electric candles glowing in our windows even before Thanksgiving this year. Illuminating each window with candles is a tradition we’ve had for our 45 years together.

In fact, one Christmas long ago our young daughter wouldn’t let us take down the candle in her bedroom window. When I shared in church about Carrie’s insistence, our late friend and resident poet Lorie Gooding wrote a poem about it. To my knowledge, this is the first publication of that poem.

Carrie’s Candle

I have a candle. It is mine.
I like to watch my candle shine.
It was a light for Christmas cheer.
But I’m going to keep it all the year.
Then when the darkness comes at night,
I’m going to watch my little light.
My good daddy and my pretty mother
Smile at my candle. So does my baby brother.
The light is for everyone to see.
But the little candle belongs to me.

Lorie Gooding

My wish for all of you this holiday season is that the light shines brightly in your lives wherever you may be.

sunrise, Amish farm
Morning light.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016