In the topmost nets of branches
I've heard people say that Hanukkah would be a minor Holiday commemorating a mediocre miracle, if it were not for the necessity of competing with Christmas. It's deeper than that.
Back through human history, people have done a lot of things to celebrate this Winter Solstice, and they have seized upon a cluster of symbols to recognize the true beginning of the year. A lot of them are blazing lights: a huge log that will burn through "the dead of winter" combining the ashes of the past with the shining of its flames burning more minutes of daylight out of the shortening nights; an evergreen tree, resisting the encroachments of winter, covered in blazingly defiant candles; oil enough for only one day stretching to illuminate the world for nine days of ritual. And the birth of a Holy Child eloquently speaks of the coming of Hope into a cold, unfriendly world -- a promise to be fulfilled by the coming of Spring. Out in Iowa, a friend of mine performs a Solstice Day ritual:
She doesn't need all the candles in her house, but the evening of the shortest night of the year there are more candles than guests, including in the center of the table one huge, unlit candle, and one regular one beside it, lit.
The youngest person present is sent to watch out the West window as sunset approaches, to enter the party with the fateful message "The sun has gone away!"
All the candles save one are extinguished, and everyone at the party then approaches the table with a taper, lighting it while repeating the first two words, transferring the light to a cold candle with the next three:
And there is a beautiful ritual described in Forster's A PASSAGE TO INDIA. He describes a broad-brush complicated ceremony to commemorate the birth of a God. There are chants and dances and of course lights that rise to a crescendo when someone points to one of the children shouting "Look, look! The God has been born!" And everyone crowds around it, bowing and worshipping -- until someone else somewhere else in the huge hall also finds the new God in some other infant. And so it goes, every child in the room is discovered to be the new-born God, and worshipped as such.
And I remember a Greek Orthodox midnight-mass Christmas Eve in which all the lights in the place were extinguished and, from a single candle the entire congregation gradually spread the light to the candles held in every hand.
Happy Holidays, everybody!
The brown reeds