A single light shining in a dark place

(December 24, 2020)

My favourite part of Christmas Eve church services in different places over the years was always singing Silent Night by candlelight.

There are many variations, of course, but it’s emotionally powerful to see a single candle, burning in the darkened room, and then to watch its light spreading out as all the other candles are lit from it. One by one, the room brightens into (literally) a blaze of light, as the song ends.

I don’t know why singing that carol and candle lighting has become such a western Christmas Eve tradition over the years — its words by Father Joseph Mohr, its simple melody composed by Franz Gruber, and first performed in rural Austria in 1818.

But the image of light overcoming darkness — even a single light — is rooted deep in ancestral memory. Humans have always been afraid of the dark. With eyes adapted to daylight, we are completely vulnerable to predators that see well when we can’t. So the light of a fire kept them at bay, and kept us safe and warm in the dark.

These symbols of light and warmth are most powerful in the northern hemisphere, as we pass the winter solstice on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year. It may not always be the coldest night, but the long darkness can certainly make it feel that way.

Close to the equator, there is little difference between night and day, all year long. But as you move farther north, to the latitudes where most of the people of Europe lived, the cultures there combined the winter solstice with the pagan feast of Yule (and no doubt a few others), the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and finally added the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Long before what we would recognize as math (or even geometry) in more southern climes, people measured and marked the longest night, the furthest distance away from the warmth and light of spring. The candle — or fire — lit at the winter solstice was a reminder that the sun would return, leading people toward the longest day and the first fruits of spring planting.

The famous passage grave in Newgrange I once visited — a megalithic mound built on an Irish hillside 5,300 years ago — precisely angled the entrance to illuminate the central burial chamber as dawn struck on the winter solstice. Similarly, 1,000 years later, the stone pillars at Stonehenge were arranged to have the light strike them at a unique angle at sundown, on the same day.

The image of a single light shining in a dark place transcends the religious and cultural settings in which it is found. “Light One Candle” was a powerful idea long before Peter, Paul and Mary first performed their hit song, because its symbolism extends beyond the duality of light and dark. Whether it is the lights of the menorah, celebrating the miracle of Hanukkah, the celebrations of Diwali lanterns lit for Chinese New Year or any of the local (or family) traditions involving fire and light, all make their defiant contrast against some background of darkness.

Whoever first said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” understood the emotional relationship between light and hope. All it takes is that one first candle to defeat the darkness, no matter how large or strong it seems to be.

As that candlelight service always reminds me on Christmas Eve, we receive the flame from our neighbour to light our own candle. It is our choice to dip the unlit candle to the flame, knowing that when we do it, nothing will ever be the same again, as we then become light-bearers ourselves.

By our choice, and the choices of others around us, it spreads from that one flickering flame to light the whole room — and, once outside those walls, into the world around us and across the generations.

One of the individual lights that went out in 2020 was U.S. congressman John Lewis. Hero of the civil rights movement, because of his persistence in working for justice and equality right to the end, he set an example of hope that will continue to spread and grow.

Throughout his 2017 book, Across that Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Face of America, Lewis drew on that image of a single light in the midst of darkness. Bringing it all home, the last page began:

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim, or diminish your light.”

Whatever the darkness, Lewis’s words remind us that what is good, in ourselves and in others, is the fuel we need to keep that light burning.

This Christmas Eve, in a world darkened by pandemic, may we find ways to share with each other the light we all need.

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Finding hope where the love light gleams

(December 14, 2020)

If there is a COVID-19 Christmas song this year, it surely must be I’ll be Home for Christmas. Written for those who were overseas in military service during the Second World War, its most famous recording was by Bing Crosby in 1943.

The emotional punchline comes at the end: “Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams. I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

I will never forget the first time I didn’t make it home for Christmas. That song echoed in my ears for weeks beforehand. All of the excitement of a new place, new beginnings, creating new traditions of my own, crashed on the emotional rocks of what, for the first time, was missing.

Christmas is the most poignant of Christian holidays, when whatever we do is measured up against the ghosts of Christmas Past (or Hallmark Christmas movies), and invariably seems to fall short. Especially as family ages and children grow up, there is also the mournful question about who — or how many — will be missing from that Christmas table next year. Every Christmas could be our last — there is no comfort in realizing that it always is, until the next one.

This year, more people than usual will only be home for Christmas in their dreams. Others will never again be able to make that journey, or to sit around the table sharing familiar foods and annual celebrations.

Yet this is not a new circumstance. Every year, many people experience a “blue” Christmas, instead of a “white” one. Like that other Christmas song (by Elvis Presley), they are “blue” because someone is missing. Grief may not wear an obvious face, but at Christmas, at least it has a colour.

Believers who bumper-sticker their Christian faith by proclaiming “Jesus is the reason for the season” miss the point of the Hallmark formula: the meaning of Christmas extends far beyond its religious expression, into the heart of Western society and culture. But that doesn’t mean Bing Crosby got it entirely right, either.

Singing “I’ll be home for Christmas” presumes you have a home, and someone in it who wishes you were there, too. And mistletoe is pointless, unless you have someone to kiss under it. As for the snow, in a climate-changing world, fewer and fewer places have a white Christmas — but none ever did in the southern hemisphere (except Antarctica), and nor much south of Minneapolis, either.

Every year our Christmas celebrations compete — and usually lose — against both the magic of Hallmark (do other people really decorate that much?) and the power of memory (“That’s nice, but I remember when…”). Christmas can too easily become a hollow celebration of inadequacy, of not-quite-enough, of not-as-good-as-before, at least until those hoped-for, magical moments in which all the flaws are swamped by the real feelings those movies try to capture on screen.

And when you don’t make it home for Christmas, or when someone you love never will again, those people and experiences you took for granted before become painfully present through a sense of loss, even grief, that the familiar songs somehow manage to make worse.

Yet the focus of I’ll be Home for Christmas is entirely personal. It’s all about me, and life often gets in the way of what I want for myself. For adults, therefore, Christmas can easily mean a personal sense of magic lost. But that can change in a heartbeat, by seeing Christmas again through the eyes of a child, by receiving gratitude from a stranger helped — or through the wonder of some stranger helping us, unexpectedly.

Growing up, that kind of unrequited generosity was key — giving, more than getting, was central to that feeling of being home for Christmas. With other relatives far away, Christmas dinner was just us — until one casual invitation for some plum pudding became an annual gathering of my father’s Jewish colleagues and spouses that overflowed our dining room.

Family at Christmas became who you chose, not who you were given. As people (like me) moved away and others passed on, that dinner table was filled with other faces and new family members, some celebrating their first Christmas in Canada.

Too many of those soldiers who heard Bing Crosby sing in 1943 were never home for Christmas again. But that doesn’t mean they were loved any less — then, or now.

As we make plans for a COVID-19-infused holiday season this year, in which our care for other people (not just public-health rules) means staying where we are, we need to remember this:

That lyrical “love light” will find each one of us this Christmas Eve once again, because it gleams as far as we need it to, in time and in space. Wherever we are, and whomever we are missing, that is a dream of home worth having.

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Now more than ever, hope matters

Misspelling the Maasai word for “hope” — osiligi — in a Kenyan primary school (2014)

(March 28, 2020)

ACTIVISTS have always said that we need to find another way to do things. Another way to live together — to live with the Earth, instead of against it.

For too long, the response, from too many people, has been, “No. There isn’t another way.” Or, “I don’t want to look for one.” Or, “We did it once and it didn’t work – we tried.”

Through COVID-19, Mother Nature is delivering a blunt message: “Think again. Try harder.”

We need to listen, but that means major cultural change, for communities everywhere. People think such change is difficult, but culture changes all the time.

Since the Second World War, for example, western industrial consumer culture and its ideals of material prosperity have gone global. But so has the damage to the biosphere caused by the tools, systems and attitudes of that culture. So have the social costs, reflected not in global prosperity but in income inequality, made worse by people losing their homes and livelihoods in rural areas and crowding into unplanned cities.

However much the economic indicators have continually crowed about higher gross domestic product, the happiness/well-being indicators have continued to drop. The gross national happiness index, promoted by such countries as Bhutan, was certainly mocked at Wall Street parties. Can you even count happiness?

Happiness might be hard to measure, but unhappiness is literally embodied. Too many of us are malnourished or overweight (or both), inactive and unfit, afflicted with problems that a healthy body should manage. Unhealthy and unhappy seem to go together.

And now, here we are. Anyone who doubts that we are all in this together, inextricably linked to everyone and everything on Earth, just has to watch the graphs of COVID-19 cases, and the global economic dominoes that continue to fall as a result.

Scientists, activists and fiction writers have been predicting a global pandemic for decades. Their audiences have ignored them, sold their books at garage sales, or left theatres thankful that the heroes saved the day, once again, before the popcorn ran out.

As we watch people adjust to whatever this “new normal” means — and it will likely be months before anything even remotely resembling the “old normal” returns — there are some truths already emerging about what matters most:

Neighbours matter. Other people need our help, just as we will certainly need theirs.

There are no strangers anymore — just people we haven’t yet met. If you feel alone, don’t just sit there — reach out.

Relationships matter. Whether the people are near or far, close companions or people (even family) we have hardly talked to in years, those relationships are how we stay grounded, reassured, comforted, encouraged and motivated to get through whatever today brings.

Community matters. No one is in this crisis alone — how we all behave, together, affects how we will survive it, together. Competition in these circumstances is pointless — co-operation makes the group stronger.

Sharing matters. If we each contribute what we can to the well-being of the community, those relationships are strengthened, for whatever comes our way.

Generosity matters. It takes many forms, and so do the gifts we can give. The gift of time, of care, can be as simple as a phone call, or the offer to pick up food or medicine for the most vulnerable. If you still have a job or an income, think of those neighbours who currently do not.

It’s too glib to say religion matters, because in a time of crisis, when the artillery shells fall, there are no atheists in a foxhole. But this situation makes us think about our life priorities, what we are doing with our time and our abilities, what we mean to the people around us and about what we can do for others. Religious or spiritual beliefs can help us to reflect on those things.

Technology matters — as long as we remember technology is in our heads, not just our hands. We can do things differently, so think hard about how to change our culture so what matters most to us is supported by our technology, not undermined by it. We are all powerful, capable people, and there is always another way if we try harder.

Finally, hope matters. With enthusiasm, I once misspelled the Maasai word for “hope” on an ancient blackboard, with a stub of chalk, in a ramshackle school in rural Kenya.

“Osiligi” was everywhere in conversation and on signs. At a deeper level, it means more than just “hope.” It is the faith that what is done right aligns with how the universe is meant to unfold, for a continual blessing from generation to generation, as part of the rhythm of life.

Amid such abject poverty, I learned a valuable life lesson from them.

Their courageous response to the challenges they faced every day was: “Osiligi.”

May it also be ours.

Peter Denton is an activist, author and sustainability consultant based in rural Manitoba. His seventh book, Imagine a Joyful Economy (a collaboration with Gus Speth), was just published by Wood Lake Books.