The sun sets early this time of year, and it is getting darker already at five in the afternoon. Yesterday I got up before six in the morning to witness a spectacular sky of orange, pink, and purple stripes as the sun was painting the clouds.
The early darkness was always fraught with anxiety from time immemorial. Every culture throughout the world has some rituals and festivals to celebrate this time of year with lights, using torches, candles or in modern times strings of lightbulbs and LEDs. The stories attached to these rituals and holidays all speak of some kind of war between powers of darkness and powers of light. Each culture uses these stories to glorify its own understanding and philosophy about its way being the enlightened way, and to transmit to future generations the myths of glory and superiority of the powers of light.
The symbolic lighting of candles for the holiday of Chanukah which Jews perform for 8 days every year according to the Jewish Lunar Calendar starting on the 25th of Kislev (This year the 28th of November), is according to the tradition connected to the victory of the Maccabean group of Jews over the Greeks who defiled the Temple. As victors, we are told that the Maccabees cleaned the temple, but only found one little crucible of pure olive oil fit for lighting the candelabra in the temple. A miracle happened according to the story, and the oil lasted for 8 days, until pure oil could be produced. Thus, we light one candle, and add a candle a day until we have 8 candles burning on the last day. The candelabra is placed at the window or outside the door facing the street in order to advertise the miracle.
Was there really a miracle and does it really matter? Myths and symbols are created in order to pass along traditions and connect the next generation to the traditions of the tribe. Sometimes the symbols come from much more ancient traditions and are born out of ancient fears of extinction. The descent of early darkness in the beginning of winter elicited existential fears of extinction. Collective fears of death are dangerous for the existence of the tribe or the specific culture, thus the leaders employ the help of the Shaman or religious leader of the time to create rituals that will drive away the fear and bring hope. “The Parsis adore fire as the visible expression of Ahura Mazda, the eternal principle of light and righteousness; the Hindu Brahmins worship it as divine and omniscient. One of the most popular festivals of Hinduism, Diwali (from the Sanskrit dīpāwali meaning “row or series of lights”) symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance” (Wikipedia)
As the world was created, according to the bible, light was the first creation out of darkness that covered everything. Light is thus perceived as life and survival and darkness the destruction of all life. Many mythologies describe the end of the world as a twilight or darkness of the gods, that is, the disappearance of light in a final darkness that engulfs all. Light serves as a symbol of life, happiness, prosperity, and, as a symbol of life, light can also serve as a symbol of immortality. Darkness, on the other hand, is associated with chaos, death, and the underworld. So, in many religions the light of torches or candles is described as enlightenment. In Buddhism the light of the candles is described as representing the light of the Buddha’s teachings, echoing the metaphor of light used in various Buddhist scriptures. In Judaism there is also the concept of the teachings of the sages being like light, making us “see and be guided in the darkness” of life outside the circle of believers.
Most mystery religious rites function to bring the group they lead “from darkness unto light.” Divine manifestations are usually described as epiphanies of light. In the Magical Papyri, the gods frequently are endowed with light attributes, and in the collection of writings known as the Hermetic Corpus, spirit and light are practically identical. In fact, as man rises to greater spiritual heights “he is turned into light.” Light symbolism in Western religions (including Islam) was decisively influenced by Greek philosophy, which gave to light a simultaneously intellectual and ethical connotation. Greek philosophy shifted the meaning of light from a symbol of life to one of consciousness.
Ceremonial use of lights in the Roman Catholic Church is conceived as a representation in fire of the life of Christ and of the whole idea of salvation. It is written that at the conversion of St Paul there shone round him a great light from heaven; while the glorified Christ is represented as standing in the midst of seven candlesticks … and his eyes as a flame of fire. Christians were described as children of light, at perpetual war with the powers of darkness. Light, to them, represents the purifying presence of God.
In our current century candles continue to be part of newer winter celebrations, like for example Kwanzaa, which is an African American holiday which runs from December 26 to January 1. A Kinara is used to hold candles. It holds seven candles; three red candles to represent African American struggles, one black candle to represent the African American people and three green candles to represent African American hopes. For the Humanists, the candle is used as a symbol of the light of reason or rationality. The Humanist festival of Human Light which also occurs in December often features a candle-lighting ceremony. A common element of worship in many Unitarian Universalism churches and fellowships is the lighting of candles of joy and concern. Unitarian Universalism also incorporates candle-lighting ceremonies from other spiritual traditions, from which they draw inspiration. A flaming chalice is the most widely used symbol of Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism, and is, in reality, usually a candle, not an actual chalice of burning oil. Even the Christmas tree, which is possibly adopted from the pagan religions which Christianity incorporated into its rituals, is decorated with candles (or these days with electric lights), and was accepted into Russian culture as a symbol of renewal. In order not to confuse it as a religious symbol, it is used in the new year celebrations, Novigod, on 31st of December and January 1st. It symbolizes the renewal of hope over hardship and darkness.
At a cosmic as well as at a social and individual level, darkness guarantees the continual existence of light by its regular renewal. In order to appreciate the light, we need to experience the darkness. I light candles every Friday evening to usher in the holiness of the Sabbath and thus perpetuate our connection to our tradition and our ancestors. I light the Chanukah candles to shed some light into the darkness and continue to tell the myths passed down to us from past generations in order to continue the connection. With light and song, we convey to the world the miracle of survival and hope.