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The piece I had originally written for the 16th and scrapped because it would not have been appropriate in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, had been about the origins of some of our winter holiday traditions. Thinking to incorporate winter solstice (and the Mayan prophecy) on the 21st into what I had already written, it struck me that each of the winter holidays and celebrations have the lighting of candles as central to their tradition.  Intertwined through all this has been the tragedy at Newtown, Connecticut which also brings thoughts and images of candles - candles that we light whether as a vigil, in solidarity, on behalf of an offered prayer, or as a symbolic gesture to signify the power of goodness over the darkness of evil.  

Christmas - Advent Wreath: The word advent means "coming" or "arrival" and the use of the advent wreath is a Christian tradition which is practiced both in churches and homes, that symbolizes the passage of the four weeks of Advent in the liturgical calendar of the Western church.

The wreath is a ring of evergreens which represents eternity and God's endless mercy which has no beginning or end.  Set on the wreath are four candles; one pink and three purple with a single white candle at the center of the wreath.  On the first Sunday in Advent a purple candle, called the Prophecy Candle, is lit in remembrance of the foretelling of the light of the Messiah.  The second Sunday another purple candle is lit, the Bethlehem Candle, which symbolizes Christ's manger.  The third Sunday of Advent the pink candle, or Shepherd's Candle, is lit representing joy.  On the fourth Sunday the final purple candle, often called the Angel's Candle, is lit representing peace.  On Christmas Eve, the white center candle, the Christ Candle, is lit and it represents the purity of Christ.  This candle will continue to be lit nightly until the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night which is January 6.

Hanukkah:  This Jewish holiday commences on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev and is a commemoration of the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem from the Syrians.

In 168 BC, members of the Jewish family Maccabee led a revolt against the Greek Syrians whose policies were aimed at nullifying the Jewish faith. The Syrians had changed the Beit HaMikdash – the Holy Temple in Jerusalem – to a Greek temple complete with idolatry. Led by Judah Maccabee, the Jews won victory over the Syrians in 165 BC and reclaimed their temple.

After cleansing the temple and preparing for its rededication, it was found there was not enough oil to light the N’er Tamid, an oil lamp present in Jewish houses of worship which represents eternal light. Once lit, the lamp should never be extinguished.  Fortunately, a search produced a small vial of undefiled oil, but it was only enough for one day.  Miraculously, the Temple lights burned for eight days until a new supply of oil was brought. In remembrance of this miracle, one candle of the Menorah – an eight branched candelabra – is lit each of the eight days of Hanukkah. Hanukkah, which means dedication, is a Hebrew word when translated is commonly spelled Hanukah, Chanukah, and Hannukah due to different translations and customs.

The tradition of receiving gifts on each of the eight days of Hanukkah is relatively new and due in part to the celebration’s proximity to the Christmas season.

Winter Solstice:  The longest night and the shortest day would most naturally have candlelight at the centerpoint of its tradition in order to counter the brief triumph of darkness over light.  The Solstice is considered a turning point since from that day forward the darkness wanes and the sunlight waxes in power thus from the dark womb of night, the light is born.

While Christians celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th, it is believed that the date was chosen simply to offset pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. Some believe that celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was set in synchronization with the December solstice because from that point onwards, the days began to have more daylight in the northern hemisphere.

Many of the customs associated with the Winter Solstice (and therefore with other midwinter festivals such as St Lucy’s Day, Saturnalia, Hanukkah, New Years and Twelfth Night) derive from stories of a mighty battle between the dark and the light, which is won, naturally, by the light. Other traditions record this as the time a savior (the Sun-Child) is born to a virgin mother.

Kwanzaa:  The holiday of Kwanzaa, which is celebrated by millions of African-Americans around the world, was created by Dr Maulana Karenga, a Professor at California State University in Long Beach in 1966.  This holiday encourages participants to remember their African heritage and consider their place in America today.  The celebration, which begins on December 26th and extends to January 1st, involves seven principals called Nguzo Saba: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).

In the Kawanzaa ritual, a candleholder called a Kinara is placed upon a mat, Mikeka, usually made of straw and seven candles, Mishumaa Saba, are placed in the Kinara.  These seven candles represent the seven principles of the celebration.

Three green candles, symbolizing hope and the color of their motherland, are placed on the left; three red candles, symbolizing the blood they have shed, are placed on the right; and a black candle, symbolizing the faces of the African people, is placed in the center.  One candle is lit each day during the Kwanzaa celebration beginning from left to right. Kwanzaa is a Swahili word meaning “fruits of the harvest.

Twelfth Night - Epiphany - Three Kings Day: Sometimes called "The Holiday Time Forgot", the Twelfth Night is really the pinnacle of the Christmas season.

Twelfth Night is a holiday that is celebrated worldwide on the night of January 5, literally the twelfth night after December 25.   Some cultures also acknowledged Twelfth Night as the end of the winter festival that began on All Hallows Eve, or Halloween as it is known today.

January 6, the morning after Twelfth Night is the Epiphany holiday also called the adoration of the Magi which commemorates the arrival of the Magi from the east.  Epiphany is an important holiday for many, Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany, is observed with just as much importance as Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve.

The papers of George Washington document the importance of Twelfth Night in the 18th century as they show he paid scant attention to Christmas Day, generally attending a church service then attending to normal business matters of his plantation.  Twelfth Night was another matter as the papers indicate how he and his wife Martha often entertained groups of relatives and friends throughout that day, indeed the holiday gathering provided the opportunity for their marriage on the Twelfth Night in 1759 in Williamsburg.

Yahrzeit and Memorial Candles:

A number of cultures use long-burning candles, often in tall glasses, to symbolize and remind them of the lives of their deceased loved ones. Jews may light a memorial candle, called "yahrzeit," or "year's time," on specific nights within four different annual holidays and say specific memorial prayers the next day. Roman Catholics, especially those from Latin America, may light memorial candles on the anniversary of a loved one's death, or as part of the celebration of the festival of the loved one's name saint or a patron saint.  Thus it is that in places like Aurora, Columbine and Newtown we see the use of these memorial candles.  

Originally posted to MOT - Morning Open Thread on Sun Dec 23, 2012 at 03:30 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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