Celebrating with light


Members of a Hindu family place earthen lamps on near rangoli, a hand-decorated pattern on the floor, ahead of the upcoming festival of Diwali. (Ajit Solanki/AP)
December 19, 2011

When it gets dark, you turn on the lights in your house. You may use a night light or leave the bathroom light on when you go to bed. And when you wake up early for school at this time of year, you can’t wait for the sun to come up.

Human beings seek out light; it provides comfort, warmth, the ability to see and the energy to grow food.

So it makes sense that many holidays are celebrated with lights as part of their tradition. This is especially true in the fall and winter, when there is less daylight.

Here are some of the holidays and observances around the world that are traditionally celebrated with lights or candles. Your family may be lighting a menorah for Hannukah, which starts tonight or have lights on a Christmas tree. Whatever your tradition, think about how the lights make you feel and why. It will help make the holiday more meaningful!


The National Menorah joined the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse for the first time in 1979. (Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post)
Diwali
Celebrated in October or November

This is the most important holiday in India and is also called the Festival of Lights. Once celebrated to honor the last crop of the year, Diwali now represents the victory of good over evil. People all over India light small clay lamps as decorations, watch fireworks and have family gatherings. The lamps symbolize each person’s internal light, even in darkness.

Hanukkah
Usually celebrated in December

This Jewish holiday is also called the Festival of Lights, and celebrates a miracle that happened more than 2,000 years ago at a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Jews had been forced from their temple by war, and when they returned after achieving victory, they had only enough oil to keep the temple’s lamp burning for one night. But somehow the lamp burned for eight days on that little bit of oil. Today, Jews celebrate this “miracle of light” by lighting the candles on a Menorah for eight days, eating foods fried in oil and giving gifts.

Winter solstice
December 21 or 22

Throughout history, the day with the least daylight has been marked with celebrations. Once called Yule, it was marked with the burning of a log. Today, many people still observe the winter solstice, which falls on December 22 this year, as a time to look forward to longer days with more light and warmth from the sun. That was even more important before modern heat and electricity!

Christmas
December 25

This important holiday in Christianity is now a major commercial holiday, too, with gifts and shopping and lots of Christmas lights. About 1,700 years ago, the Christian church chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25, which at the time was the date of the winter solstice. As those celebrations were focused on light, the tradition carried over to Christmas. “A Yule-Christmas link was a natural,” said historian Joseph F. Kelly, author of “The Origins of Christmas.”

Kwanzaa
December 26-January 2

This is a relatively young holiday, created in 1966, that celebrates African and African American culture and community. The holiday is built around seven principles, including unity, faith and creativity, which are honored with a candle holder with seven candles. One is lit each night during the holiday.

— Margaret Webb Pressler

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