“Christmas … the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”
December’s holiday season is one I look forward to all year long. It is the time when our Methodist tradition counts the Advent days, bringing us closer to Bethlehem and the arrival of a newborn child. But other honorable end of year customs are also at work.
Today, Dec. 21, is the Winter Solstice, when daylight is at its low ebb and the night has its greatest power. That is until tomorrow when winter, though just begun, starts to grow the light and so lose its darkness. Northern Europeans held many solstice celebrations in ancient days, honoring this season with a variety of rituals such as Yule, a 12-day holiday of fires, singing and feasting to keep the darkness away.
Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, has just ended its eight-night run for this year. This festive and present filled time celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, when temple lights, with fuel for only one night, miraculously kept burning for eight!
The season is also a sacred time for Muslims, many of whom celebrated the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday this year on Dec. 1. For Southwestern native peoples, the Hopi, Pueblo and Zuni, the winter solstice is a time to purify with dances and rituals, welcoming the sun with prayers for an abundant new growing season.
And here in the beautiful Napa Valley it is a wonderful time of the year. Our streets and homes, churches and wineries are filled with holiday trees and lights, garlands and decorations, bringing the festivities fully to mind. Even Bunny Foo-Foo has a seasonal ornament, flourishing a green light saber over the valley in benediction, doing his part to chase away the dark side.
After church this past Sunday, my wife Caroline and I attended the Saint Helena Choral Society’s annual concert. Entering the hall, which was packed, we found seats and heard a wonderful concert with a wide variety of seasonal pieces including two French sacred works, some swinging jazz for variety, and, of course, four glorious sections from the Messiah. All was magnificent but I was particularly struck at the end, when most of the audience stood for the Hallelujah chorus. I noticed a feeling of joy and connection among my fellow audience members. Even when we all sat down, for the final two pieces, I felt a presence that was different from the simple appreciation of a fine performance or of an inspired composition. It seemed all were moved in a deeper, more significant manner. By the music and its remarkable power and beauty, but also by the season and its meaning. Like a gift, the holidays bring understanding that we are not alone, that we are united in our humanity, in our dreams of a better world, in our prayers for a return to a more just, compassionate and benevolent society. This past Sunday, the Performing Arts Center was truly filled with the holiday spirit; with a sense of wonder, of joy, of worship.
This holy time of the year encourages each of us to expand our sense of who we are by honoring the great mystery that lies at the heart of life. Whatever we call this mystery, whether it be God, or Christ or Buddha or the cosmos or the unknown, is less important than that we acknowledge its presence. By allowing the mystery into our lives we begin to know it and so are transformed by its presence. This season of solstice and new birth, as the light grows and the days lengthen, will always be a great mystery, a magnum mysterium. It is a holy time for each to wonder at and honor the question rather than demand an answer.
Enjoy your holidays, and may life’s miracles and graces continue to bless, encourage and surprise each one of us.