A common theme of Winter Solstice ceremonies everywhere is the burning of fires to symbolically re-kindle the dwindling sun. People gather together to cheer on the ascendancy of the light, the victory of the very forces of life.
The Hindu Festival of Lights, Divali, The Festival of Light, comes about six weeks before the Winter Solstice. The story surrounding Divali is that Lord Rama, the hero of the Hindu epic, Ramayana, was sent into exile (read darkness), but he redeems himself by slaying the evil ten-headed Demon King Ravana, who had stolen his wife, Sita, the light of his life. He is then, after fourteen years, able to return home in triumph.
On Divali, people light his way back into the fold each year and at the same time, invite the gifts of the Goddess of Prosperity and Plenty, Lakshmi. They place clusters of deyas, small clay lanterns filled with oil and a burning cotton wick, along all the pathways, garden walls, windowsills and patios in towns and villages, their flickering glow, providing a warm welcome.
Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrated near the Winter Solstice, commemorates a miracle which is a metaphor for the dwindling, then returning light of the season. The popular story goes: the stock of oil, which was used to fuel the everlasting light on the altar of The Temple, ran low. A one-day supply was all that was left, but it was somehow able to continue burning for the eight days that it took to procure more.
The eight-day Chanukah ritual involves the lightening and blessing of eight candles in a menorah, or ceremonial candelabra. One additional flame is kindled each night, mimicking the gradual gathering of light in the dark sky. For Jews, the candles represent the light of truth, the flame of freedom.
Throughout Northern Europe where the weather is more severe, the solstice fires were lit indoors. The Yule log and colored light decorations which are today emblematic of Christmas are the same as were once lit in honor of Sulis, Sol, Sunna, the old Goddess of the Sun. In Sweden, Santa Lucia, Saint Lucy, Holy Light, is observed on December 13, the date of the Winter Solstice on the old Julian calendar. Young girls dressed in white nightgowns with crowns of lit candles in their hair parade the streets at dawn, waking people with coffee and fresh baked cakes in the spiral shape of the many-spoked sun wheel.
Kwanzaa is an African American holiday that has been celebrated during the solstice season since 1966, when it was first designed by Dr. Maulana Kerenga, a Black Studies professor and cultural nationalist at Berkeley. Although it is inspired by West African harvest and thanksgiving festivals -- Kwanzaa means "first fruits" in Kiswahili -- it is celebrated like a solstice fire festival.
A major ritual element is the lighting of seven red, black, and green candles in a kinara, a holder. Each candle stands for the Seven African Principles, fundamental precepts upon which a creative, productive and successful community life is based: Umoja, unity; Kujichagulia, self-determination; Ujima, collective work; Ujamaa, shared economics; Nia, life purpose; Kuumba, creativity; Imani, faith. Beginning on December 26, they are lit alternately from left to right, one each night, until they are all aglow.
Since the earliest of human times, it has been both natural and necessary for folks to join together in the warmth and glow of community in order to welcome the return of light to a world that is surrounded by dark. And through the imitative gesture of lighting fires, like so many solar birthday candles, we do our annual part to rekindle the spirit of hope and light in our hearts.
Lighting a light at the darkest time of the year is a pledge somehow. A promise. A sacred vow. Such a small, symbolic gesture. So elegantly simple. So significant. Each tentative flicker of each flame is a reminder of the fragility and pulsating persistence of the life force. Each spark, a signal flare of faith.
One by one, in tiny increments,
candle by candle, gesture by effort,
wish by prayer, concern by care,
we feed the life-fires of the soul
and light the infinite universe,
little by little from within.
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