Festivals of Light

There’s something that’s long fascinated me about the winter solstice: the uniquely human way we respond to it, and the universality of that response. Animals respond to the onset of winter either by migrating or by hibernating. Our earliest ancestors generally migrated too, following the animals and their food sources. But at some point, in addition to harnessing fire, they also learned to salt and cure meat and to dry and preserve fruits and vegetables in anticipation of cold, lean months with few sources of fresh food.

That bit of technology is pretty extraordinary in itself, if you think about it: being able to live semi-independently of what nature readily provides at any given time. And then, people all over the world saw a need to determine in a very precise way when to expect the changing of the seasons in order to further assert control over their own circumstances. Astonishingly accurate astronomical and calendar traditions arose independently everywhere in the world, from the northwest corner of Europe to the Middle East, China and India and throughout the Americas, stretching back over 4000 years.


Humans are pretty amazing. What’s even more amazing is how much we tend to think the same way, regardless of our wildly diverse environments.

Now here’s what I find especially inspiring and touching: until very recently, most humans lived very precarious existences. Winter was especially hard, due to the lack of fresh food and the difficulty of maintaining enough fuel to keep warm. And yet. Virtually every culture has a tradition of thumbing its nose at those challenges with a festival of lights of some sort at or near the winter solstice. For millennia, we have gone out of our way to concoct an elaborate amount of rich, sweet, fatty foods and to feed those in need. We ventured out into the dark and the rough weather to visit friends and family and give them gifts. We used precious fuel with abandon—candles, oil and butter lamps. We celebrated with excess the best things about life when everything in our surroundings should have had us focused narrowly on survival.

We do this because we can. Because we’re both toolmakers and dreamers, and can both imagine a future that’s different from our present circumstances, and figure out how to plan for it. As civilizations got more complex, we began to put different glosses on our reasons for celebrating this way, but the stories tend to vary quite a bit more than the actual activities.

In my house, we observe both the American cultural version of Christmas and the Kalmyk new year, Zül. Zül has a Buddhist element to it, and is also one of the Tibetan calendar’s New Year’s. It involves gathering at the local temple, lighting butter lamps, celebrating a general birthday for everyone, and giving small gifts to children. My favorite description of Zül has always been this one: (Background: Some 4000 Kalmyks came to the US in the early 1950’s after a decade or more as refugees—first fleeing Stalin, and then surviving as Displaced Persons in Central Europe in the middle of World War II.)

“Now, just imagine yourself…being 10 years old on a ship arriving in New York City, on December in the year 1951, and standing on the deck of that ship and looking out to see all of the wonders of America represented by the holiday festive lights of Christmas.

“It was indeed a Festival of Lamps that day, that moment, captured in time for that ten year old, because there was no concept of the American holiday season yet.”

And yet those lights spoke to that ten-year-old in the same way as they did for everyone on shore.

Happy festival of lights to you and yours, by whatever name you call it.


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