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

A Shadow of Itself


This beautiful male pileated woodpecker was only concerned about one thing: breakfast. The early morning sun, low in the southeastern horizon, brightly highlighted North America’s biggest woodpecker just before the winter solstice of 2014. The angle allowed the bird’s shadow and that of the peanut butter suet feeder to be cast on the trunk of the old sugar maple in our backyard near Mt. Hope, Ohio. The pileated woodpeckers came to our feeders year-round, even bringing their young to our home in Ohio’s Amish country. Those birds would be in the top 10 things that I miss since we moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley two and a half years ago.

“A Shadow of Itself” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Light on the Shortest Day

Christmas lights, memorial tree
Light on the Shortest Day.

The winter solstice, the day with the least amount of daylight in the Northern Hemisphere, arrives at 11:28 a.m. Eastern Standard Time today. Historians note that ancient peoples celebrated this day with festivals of light in recognition that from this day forward daylight slowly but inevitably increases until we reach the summer solstice in six months. They further portend Christianity affixed Christmas to coincide with these secular celebrations. Regardless, Christmas has been on December 25 for ages, though it’s doubtful that is the actual date of Jesus’ birth.

Nevertheless, the holidays are filled with images of lights. Houses are decorated in honor of the season. Businesses, too, join lighting up the dark December nights. Entire towns and cities hold holiday lighting festivities and light up their downtowns with seasonal decorations and glowing lights.

Our family has joyfully joined in that tradition for 46 years. This year, in our new location in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, we planted a little fir tree in the backyard. We call it our “Jenny tree” in honor of a friend who died much too soon at age 47. Jenny was a light to the world, to everyone she met, her family, the children with whom she shared at the school where she worked, and of course her coworkers.

Accordingly, I decided to fill our little Jenny tree with white lights. They burn night and day throughout the holiday season as a reminder of the light Jenny so lovingly shared in life.

But for me, today is more than the winter solstice. It marks eight years since my father died. He loved Christmas. Furthermore, my wife’s father died 16 years ago on December 22. And Jenny’s brother, Steve, died of cancer 27 years ago also on December 22. Our little Jenny tree shines its radiance for all of these good folks that we loved and miss so much.

“Light on the Shortest Day” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

Here’s to the year of the quirky calendar

Amish country, spring, Amish buggy, Amish school
Spring in Amish country.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Being a weekly newspaper columnist, I pay attention to the calendar. I have to if I want my columns to appear in print. If I miss a deadline, well you know.

I only just recently noticed the quirkiness of the 2016 calendar. For instance, February, the shortest month, had five Mondays. If you are reading this on Feb. 29, it’s “Leap Day.” Within its 31 days, January only had four Mondays. Go figure.

That got me delving into the rest of the year. My research revealed several interesting tidbits of facts and silliness. Every month has at lease one cause, and many weeks have more than one reason to celebrate.

Digging further, I discovered a wide diversity of day designations that I never heard of. I guess I need to get out more.

January and February are history. Here’s a sampling of what’s in store for the rest of 2016. For the sake of space, I picked the most notable ones, minus the standard holidays.

spring flowers, crocuses
Crocuses.
March brings its share of quirkiness. March 3 is “If Pets had Thumbs Day.” March 9 is “Panic Day.” Besides the “Ides of March,” March 15 is “Dumbstruck Day.” I couldn’t make this stuff up.

April is no better. By starting off with “April Fools Day,” it follows that April is “National Humor Month.” Appropriately, it’s also “Stress Awareness Month.” The first week of April is “Read a Road Map Week.” I wonder when “GPS Week” is? April 4 is “Tell a Lie Day,” followed by “Go for Broke Day” on April 5.

May is “National Bike Month” and “National Photograph Month.” Designated days include May 3, “Lumpy Rug Day;” May 11, “Eat What You Want Day,” and the only Friday the 13th of the year.
Though I love June, I’m a little confused about its designations. It is “Aquarium Month” and the first week is “Fishing Week.” Maybe I can figure that out on June 1, “Flip a Coin Day.”

keep calm sign
The sign says it all.
Surprisingly, July has only one week dedicated to a cause. Week two is “Nude Recreation Week,” which I am not advocating. I will, however, promote July as “Blueberry Month.” Besides being “Independence Day,” July 4 is “Sidewalk Egg Frying Day.”

I like August. It’s “Admit You’re Happy Month,” which goes nicely with the second week, “National Smile Week.” Appropriately, Aug. 16 is “National Tell a Joke Day.”

Just in time for football season, September is “Little League Month” as in baseball. The ninth month starts off with “Emma M. Nutt Day.” She was the very first telephone operator. You’re on your own until October.

With 18 endorsements, October is a highly regarded month. Did I mention October is “Sarcastic Month?” That must explain why Oct. 3 is “Virus Appreciation Day.”

Hold your ears in November when it’s “National Drum Month.” And is it ironic that Nov. 8 is both the “U.S. General Election” and “Dunce Day?”

That brings us to December. It seems like 2016 will end goofy, too. Take Dec. 21, the winter solstice. Besides being the year’s day with the least daylight, Dec. 21 is “Humbug Day,” “Look on the Bright Side Day,” and “National Flashlight Day.”

Say what you will, the calendar is used to promote a variety of legitimate to questionable causes and remembrances. I’m not endorsing this practice, just reporting it.

I’ll simply stick to writing my columns as the literary spirit moves, quirky days or no quirky days. Enjoy this “Leap Day.” Tomorrow is “National Pig Day.”

pileated woodpecker, shadow, winter solstice
Solstice shadow.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016