Every, Richard and I celebrate the passing of winter's longest night with a party: we fill our bellies with my luscious homemade eggnog (recipe below), and our hearts with the companionship of friends and family.
To warm our spirits, we light the darkness, filling dozens of white paper bags with a scoop of sand and a small votive candle, and lining our sidewalks with these luminarias. As dusk falls, guests help us place and light them one by one; the small flames burn though the night heralding the sun's return at dawn.
Lights, both decorative and symbolic, feature prominently in our culture's winter holidays in part because of the literal darkness that overtakes the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year, when the sun seemingly retreats each fall: nights grow longer and longer, and days grow colder. Then, as if by magic, our celestial source of light and heat seems to havw a change of heart after winter solstice and the days gradually grow longer again.
Holiday lights like the luminarias we light are meant to illuminate, a word that means "to light up," and also, appropriate to our modern insight into the way Earth's tilted axis is responsible for the annual alternation in day length, "to explain, make clear, elucidate." Light alleviates our intellectual and spiritual darkness, afford knowledge and understanding.
Last year at solstice time, we were mid-way through our six-week "residency" in the Denver area for Richard's daily radiation treatments for his brain cancer. In response to my request on this blog that readers light a luminaria for us, photos of lit candles in paper bags streamed in from around the world, from one on a windowsill in Australia to the candles on a snowy deck in Alaska, luminarias lining a walkway in France and trio under a palm tree in Florida.
And here at home in south-central Colorado, our friends gathered at our house to fill and place the display of luminarias we couldn't. Those tiny candle flames lit our hearts and spirits at a truly dark time in Richard's and my lives.
This year I looked forward to resuming our annual Light the Darkness party--until my mother's sudden decline. As we immersed ourselves in helping my dad bring her home from the hospital and arrange for hospice care, I knew I didn't have either the energy or the heart to organize a party. But we wouldn't let the solstice pass without celebrating the turning of the season.
Which is why as dusk fell tonight, our yard gradually filled with friends and family come to help us light the darkness by placing paper bags, each with their commonplace cargo of sand and votive candle. As the light faded, lighters and matches came out, and candle by candle, the luminarias glowed. People talked, hugged, wished each other happy holidays, stood back to admire the lines of flickering light, and then drifted quietly away.
Just a few minutes ago, Richard and I stepped outside into the night. We walked down the sidewalk lined with flickering candlelight under the muted silver glow of the nearly full moon. The tiny candles, sheltered in their bags, each grounded in a scoop of sand, burned steadily as they will hour by hour through the long winter night. When dawn comes, many of the luminarias will still be glowing softly, greeting the return of daylight.
Tomorrow, we'll drive over the mountains to Denver--carefully, on roads made slick by today's snowstorm--to spend a few more days with my parents, and my brother, who is flying in to join us. Tonight though, walking hand in hand with Richard in the darkness, watching clouds sail across the moon, my spirit glows, lit by the commonplace grace of love--and the beauty of small candles burning in simple paper bags.
Sinfully Delicious Holiday Eggnog
(Adapted from Joy of Cooking)
one dozen eggs (free-range eggs with their orange yolks make prettier eggnog)
1 pound powdered sugar
2 to 3 cups dark rum (you can substitute brandy or bourbon if you prefer
3 cups skim milk
1 pt half 'n half
2 pts heavy cream
Separate eggs, placing the yolks in one bowl and the whites in another. Cover the whites and refrigerate. Beat the yolks until creamy. Add powdered sugar gradually, beating slowly. Add two cups of rum (reserving one, if using three), beating constantly. Cover and let stand in refrigerator for at least an hour to eliminate the "eggy" taste. Add the remaining cup of rum, along with the milk, half 'n half, and the cream while beating the mixture constantly. Cover the mix and put it back in the refrigerator overnight to mellow the liquor. When the egg mix is ready, beat the whites until they form firm but not stiff peaks (the peaks don't droop but aren't stiff). Fold the whites gently into the egg mix and sprinkle the whole with freshly-grated nutmeg. Serve in a punch bowl with a ladle and small glasses or cups—this is very rich nog!
(Serves about three dozen people if the servings are small...)