Keeping the Lights on for the Darkest Night

Many winter traditions involve lights. In most parts of the world at any distance from the equator, you will find seasonal traditions that involve the lighting of special lamps or candles, hanging additional lights around the home, or gathering for festivals of lights or bonfires. The reasons for all of this are both practical and spiritual. 

Historically, preparing for the dark season took a lot of effort. Medieval castles would sometimes employ dedicated candlemakers, who had the task of trying to calculate the demand for candles in advance, collect enough fuel (usually tallow/animal fat or beeswax), and produce enough candles to keep the lights burning through the winter. Less wealthy households would have to stock up on fuel for oil lamps and torches, or keep hearth fires burning brightly beyond the time needed just for cooking. The amount of fuel required to get through the dark season would have been something on many people’s minds throughout much of human history. The cost and effort required to create candles and other sources of light made these light sources things worth feeling gratitude for, attaching symbolism to, and using mindfully with an eye toward conserving resources– therefore to celebrate a holiday that involves lighting extra candles/burning lamps beyond what is needed simply for light becomes a very significant spiritual gesture and offering. 

We should not let our modern conveniences make us forget the inherent value of simply lighting a candle or flipping on a light switch– this is an excellent time of year to reflect on what energy/resources/collective effort goes into everything we are consuming in our homes. Many of us have access to candles and light sources today that would have been very expensive, outright impossible, or required a lot of labor for our ancestors to have. Simply being grateful for the light in your home is an excellent holiday practice!

There are plenty of practical reasons for humans to be wary of spending time in the dark. Historically, travelers and residents in cities would have been wary of thieves (having one’s winter food or fuel stores stolen was a serious concern and would have been much more difficult to recover from in a time without global food trade/access to year round agricultural), and those in rural areas would have been keeping an eye out for wolves and other non-hibernating predators and pests, which become hungrier and more prone to preying on livestock and indoor food stores during cold months. Even walking around inside without a light source may prove hazardous– no one wants to fall down steps or tread on a venomous spider that’s moved indoors. 

But as with most things, there are practical/earthly considerations and spiritual/mental/emotional ones as well. Our ancestors may not have understood “depression” in the ways we do now that we can study brain chemistry, but the concept of “melancholia” as an affliction dates back to ancient times. Lots of things were thought to cause melancholia (everything from humors/fluids in the body, to phase of the moon, to activity of spirits) but in addition to local spiritual beliefs and folk medicine, you’ll find plenty of references in historical texts about treatments for melancholia involving healthy diet, regular sleep, activity with friends, music, and time spent in the sunshine. Even not understanding all the physiological reasons, many of our ancestors had an intuitive sense of good winter self-care, and to some extent, one can view festive winter gatherings, emphasis on light sources and merrymaking, or increased spiritual practice, as collaborative wards against seasonal depression, and ways we communally support one another in these practices.

How do we understand these things in a postmodern way? How do we cultivate the same effects in a world where significant objects have become easier to get, environmental hazards/necessities have changed, there’s less collective agreement/unification around a singular religious or cultural icon and therefore less opportunity to socially connect in spiritual contexts, when our understanding of science/our own minds have changed, etc? When we find ourselves living in a world that is divorced or isolated from nature and our own cultural historical context, it requires more intentional engagement to find the same meaning and emotional/spiritual effects in these traditional holiday actions, regardless of your culture or spiritual path.

Some things we have found helpful for cultivating this intentional holiday energy include:

• Reflecting on the modern systems that make it possible for us to have access to candles, food, and other holiday staples. Giving thanks for those who produce food and other items/giving thanks to anonymous farmers and production workers, and all those involved in the transportation and distribution of goods. Whenever possible, we try to purchase items that are produced locally or that can be sourced from fair trade/ethical production systems and individual makers/artists, and try to avoid giving our money to large corporations that mass produce items to the detriment of the environment and human workers. And be kind to anyone working in retail or service during this time of year. This is an excellent time of year to practice being patient in lines, be proactive about assisting elderly community members and parents with children, and generally checking one’s own sense of entitlement. None of us “deserve” a particular kind of holiday experience, and we can directly affect whether someone else has a good or bad day– use this power carefully, especially during the season when many people are more emotionally vulnerable or physically worn down.

• Taking extra care of nature during the winter, such as offering healthy foods to local wildlife, providing winter habitat for sleeping pollinators, offering warm nesting materials for birds and small animals, providing fresh water when other water sources are frozen, insulating perennial flowers and fruit-bearing plants from frost, etc. 

• Gently refusing holiday branded gimmicks from large corporations and chain establishments, and prioritizing small local businesses and transparent/reputable charities. When possible, we like to contribute to local food pantries, coat drives, supply drives for animal shelters, and toy drives organized by local schools or churches. 

• Giving thanks for our home, and spending extra time cleaning/decorating/refreshing the space. 

• Dedicating a candle and lighting it each day (or on set days of the week/month) in honor of ancestors, deities, and guides, and intentionally opening our homes and hearts to them. (In some cases, this includes offerings and healing work for ancestral trauma, generational differences, and peacemaking/reparations/etc, especially as some of our ancestors participated in things like slavery and other exploitative colonial systems). 

• Preparing seeds, literally or metaphorically! Winter is a good time to prepare certain kinds of seeds and bulbs for planting in the spring, and it’s also a good time to set your intentions for things like: creative projects/outlining future creative work, developing plans for further education or self-improvement, seeking new friendships and other relationships, honing skills and positioning yourself for future professional opportunities. 

Above all, we try to keep the holidays as a time for being oriented towards love and service to Other, be that nature, friends and family, community or country, or spiritual allies. This time of year brings many opportunities to reflect on the ways our time, energy, money, and personal practice contributes to large social/cultural systems that either help or hinder other people and the natural world, and the ways we choose to celebrate the holidays can be empowering opportunities to see our own spiritual values in action.

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