Darkness as a metaphor stands for gloom, distress, unhappiness, ignorance or secrecy; something impenetrable, evil, or simply wicked. The word meaning “absence of light” takes on such metaphoric power because we humans are a visual species, depending primarily on sight to make sense of the world.
(Other animals depend on their other senses as much or more as sight. Dogs, for example, can navigate with their eyes closed and noses sniffing, aided by something like 125 to 300 million smell-sensors; our noses, with a paltry 5 million smell-sensing cells, are blind by comparison.)
Thus, if we cannot see something clearly, we tend to fear it. That’s true figuratively as well as literally.
Hence the power of darkness as a metaphor. And our unease when the nights lengthen and daylight grows short. (As well as our overabundance of artificial nighttime lighting, so much that it now pollutes the night skies and, scientists are beginning to document, harms our health.)
No wonder then, that light stars in so many Northern-Hemisphere-based winter holidays: Hanukkah menorahs, Christmas trees, Yule logs, and even Kwanzaa candles, a celebration rooted in equatorial Africa where day length is not an issue. (In the Southern Hemisphere, these holidays fall incongruously in the longest days of the year)
These holiday lights are meant to illuminate, a word that means “to light up,” and also “to explain, make clear, elucidate.” Light alleviates spiritual and intellectual darkness, bestowing knowledge and understanding.
My favorite of these light-the-dark-winter-days illuminations are the luminarias of the Hispanic New World (or farolitos, depending on the area of the Southwest). Richard and I learned this tradition of setting small votive candles in paper bags, each with a scoop of sand to anchor the bag and keep the candle from burning its shelter, when we lived in southern New Mexico.
On Christmas Eve, whole neighborhoods there (including the one where we lived) were lit with luminarias, the glowing paper bags lining streets, sidewalks, and even rooftops.
When we moved north to his childhood home a decade and a half ago, we brought the luminaria tradition with us. Except we moved it to Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, and began an annual “Light the Darkness” open house, inviting friends and family to help fill luminarias and line our sidewalk and walkways. After lighting them one by one, we shared homemade eggnog and other holiday treats.
Each year the celebration grew. And then came Richard’s brain cancer. The first Winter Solstice, we were away, living in the Denver area for his radiation treatments. Friends gathered at our house, filled and lit the luminarias, and sent us photographs of their light. (People all around the world lit candles that night and emailed us photos. That outpouring of love and light still warms me.)
By second Winter Solstice of Richard’s journey with brain cancer, he had survived two brain surgeries and seemed to be doing well, but my mother had just begun hospice care and was slipping fast. I was coordinating her care, which meant going back and forth to Denver every few days. We lit the luminarias, but skipped the party.
By the time Winter Solstice arrived last year, the third year of our journey with Richard’s brain cancer, he was gone. Molly and I held the celebration of his remarkable life on the day after Solstice, and invited the hundreds who attended to write something for Richard on a luminaria bag, and place it in Salida’s Steamplant Sculpture Garden near “Matriculation,” his sculpture there.
Solstice this year marked not only the return of the sun’s light and warmth, but also a personal milestone: I threw the first-ever Light the Darkness party without Richard. Friends and family gathered, filled and distributed the bags (including some with sayings saved from last year’s celebration), and then lit the luminarias.
One by one, the tiny flames took hold and the flimsy bags glowed in the gathering darkness. We gathered in the warm house, ate and drank and laughed and toasted those who could not be there with us.
Much later, when the house was quiet, I padded outside into the frigid darkness. The luminarias were glowing, Salida’s “Christmas Mountain” was bright on its hill across the river, and all was still.
I turned my face to the star-spangled, moon-shot heavens and made my solstice wish:
May we all find light in whatever darkness impedes us. May we all find peace, healing, and love to guide us on our way.
Blessings of this solstice season to you all!