It’s Christmas day. Here in the Northeast there is a soft blanket of snow which arrived last evening, just enough to cover the ground, just in time for a white Christmas. The sun, which we rarely see here from November through April, is out and blinds me every time I look through the window.
My kids have finally settled down after the morning excitement, and I am resting in the quiet, thinking of this day and all that it is, or at least all we say it is supposed to be. So many expectations for one little day. What a burden to place on twenty-four hours.
And yet those twenty-four hours have so much power. A day when we feel all the feels. We are told that it is a day to feel merry and bright, happy and grateful and blessed, joyous and reflective. There are no Christmas songs that talk about how hard the holidays can be sometimes, how there are seasons in everyone’s lives where we’re just not feeling it for one reason or another. During time of loss, fatigue, illness, divorce, unemployment, depression, or whatever your struggle, there doesn’t seem to be much room under the tree for the human condition.
I was listening to Rob Bell’s podcast last week. His guest on the show was Alexander Shaia, who spoke about how many of our Christmas traditions, things we typically consider as uniquely Christian, actually have roots in pagan Celtic rituals*. He went on to describe how during the months of November and December, as the days got shorter, the Celts would celebrate the coming winter solstice. As the darkness bled slowly into the days, they honored and celebrated the natural rhythm of nature. They felt the slowing of their bodies, the desire to do less, to rest, and to settle down. They observed their forest friends preparing to hibernate, and prepared the land to lie fallow over the winter. And as they succumbed to this rhythm, they waited in anticipation of the winter solstice, when the light would slowly return to them at the end of December. In celebration, they would adorn the bare branches of oak trees, and decorate their homes with lights. The lights that they used not only symbolized the expectation and hope of the coming light, but also were meant to decorate the darkness. There is a difference between using light to drive out the darkness–like when we flip a switch to light up a whole room–and using lights to decorate the darkness. Think of how you sit in front of your Christmas tree, admiring the soft glow of the lights. The corners of the room are still dark, and it’s not enough light to read a book or complete a task, but that’s not really the point of your Christmas lights. The Celts weren’t afraid of the darkness leading up to the solstice. They recognized that the darkness itself was as sacred as the coming light. As they surrendered to it, they honored it. They didn’t chase it away. They decorated it, until such time that the light slowly came back to them, days still gray but slowly, quietly, and sometimes imperceptibly lengthening.
Later, Christians adapted some of these traditions to symbolize their belief of the incarnation–light entering into the world in the form of Jesus.
While I found this history lesson captivating, I can’t stop thinking about that phrase, “decorating the darkness”. Christmas is not easy for many. There are memories and grief triggers, difficult relationships, and loss. Some are going through the motions, wanting it to be over. Wishes of “Merry Christmas” are, to some, salt rubbed in wounds that feel so wide open and raw this time of year. While gratitude for what is here now is always in order, urging someone with an amputated arm to just be grateful that they at least have another arm is neither sensitive nor effective.
In the times that my world has been dark, it is rare to find someone who will sit there in the darkness with me. Usually people want to pull you out of it–to flip the lights on, so to speak. Perhaps there is a time and place for that. But I think there is also a time to sit quietly in another’s darkness, to honor its sanctity and keep vigil, the soft light of the candle in your hand lighting things up just enough to decorate the darkness.
Though the solstice has passed and Christmas morning has turned to afternoon, consider honoring the darkness, either in your own life or someone else’s. It’s not so scary to sit there if you know that someone else is with you, holding a candle and keeping vigil for as long as necessary. Some darkness comes and goes, some passes more quickly than others, and some darkness shows up predictably at a certain time or place. You can honor it as a natural rhythm and hold it sacred, but you can’t force the solstice.
*I am not certain regarding the accuracy of the Celtic traditions that Mr. Shaia mentioned, as this is not something I have researched. So if you are a Celtic tradition expert, please accept my apologies for any inaccuracies, and take it up with Alexander Shaia, not with me.