The darkest night of the year

The darkest night of the year…it’s coming up this week. It’s also the title of Over the Rhine’s first Christmas album. Check it out. For real.

When I was a little girl, I had a game with a friend of mine. Whenever we rode somewhere together near Christmas—together in the backseat, of course—we would count houses decorated for Christmas that we saw outside our sides of the car. The girl who counted the most decorated houses won. I don’t remember winning or losing, but I remember counting.

I still like driving or walking through neighborhoods with decorated houses. Those houses with the choreographed lights and music, or inflatable crèches (or Snoopy), or garish blinking lights seem a bit much, but I love being able to see a lighted tree through a front window, or strings of lights on the front of a house.

My favorite decoration, though, might be the electric window candles many houses put up for the holidays. There’s a farmhouse near my childhood home that has probably a dozen street-facing windows, and in December each one is illuminated with an electric candle.

I don’t know why I like those cheesy little candles so much. Maybe because they’re hard to do over-the-top. Maybe because they have a symbolic history of hospitality and welcome. Maybe just because they’re pretty.

Candles have long histories in religious usage. We light candles on the altar and beyond in TEC. Even at the liturgical (i.e. pseudo-Anglican) CRC I attended in undergrad we lit a Paschal candle. The Catholics light even more candles. All the Taizé services I’ve attended have been practically overrun with candles (and I love it). I often light a candle to pray.

What is this fixation with light and darkness? Why do we like candles so much?

The “Order of Worship for the Evening” in the ’79 BCP, a rite to introduce or replace evening prayer (etc.), is preoccupied with light and darkness. The first rubric is, “The church is dark, or partially so, when the service is to begin.” The Officiant’s greeting is, “Light and peace, in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Thanks be to God). Other parts of the service reflect this. The Phos hilaron is said/sung. If the service is done as a prelude to evening prayer/evensong, it’s followed by even more references to light and darkness.

Now, the Order of Worship for the Evening is pretty new, but consciousness of light and darkness is as old as humanity—it’s why even the ancienct pagans celebrated around the winter solstice. When it seemed like the world might end in darkness, a faint, almost unnoticeable turn came, and the world turned again toward the light.

I heard once about a town in Iceland, built under a cliff, that received no direct sunlight during the deepest winter days. Each year, when the sun is once again high enough to reach the town over the edge of the cliff, the people of the village gather outdoors for a communal pancake meal to celebrate the sun’s return.

The Christmas holidays are times of light, but they’re dark days for some. Loss hurts deeper this time of year; loneliness is lonelier; depression is more isolating. Peace and joy come harder to some than others. People are walking in darkness.

The ninth lesson from the Nine Lessons and Carols service—which my church put on last night; a lovely, lovely evening—comes from John 1. About the incarnation—the Word became flesh. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Supposedly, in utter darkness, a healthy human eye/brain could perceive candlelight from 30 miles away. Thirty miles.

Sometimes, the good tidings of great joy don’t seem like enough to stem the tide of the world’s darkness. How do we reconcile the messy, magnificent Incarnation with the evening news? But maybe we don’t need an apocalyptic fire—after all, even Jesus didn’t rise up and take earthly kingship like so many expected him to do.

Maybe all we need is one candle, lit in the window, piercing the darkness.


Where do you see light in darkness? Where do you light candles?


5 thoughts on “The darkest night of the year

  1. The beauty of Christmas is exactly the juxtaposition of light and darkness. Of a tiny baby and a giant empire. Peace and violence. And its message is exactly meant for the lonely, the oppressed and depressed, those living in the margins and that makes the timing so poignant for those of us here in the northern hemisphere as we try to shut out the darkness.

    Of course, it is a kind of awkward holiday for the first world. OK. Fair enough, we can still be oppressed, depressed, living in the margins – but we’re living inside the empire, which presents all sorts of complicated propositions about living within the empire and trying to live ethically. (Or if we can even live ethically within a system built on racism, slavery, oppression, marginalization, etc. in the first place.)

    On a practical level, we have to start with ourselves. We have to start with evaluating our own hospitality, like you mentioned with the candle in the window. Sure we can put candles in our window and it looks pretty when you pass by, but are we willing to take people in when they come to our door? That’s where we need to start: Who are we turning away? That goes for both the personal level and the big-picture scope of things. And it’s difficult. Although I don’t do much praying, I do have these moments at least once a week where there’s someone I encounter on the bus or on the street who just looks like she or he could use help and I tell God, “Not today, God. Please don’t show up here expecting me to help this person out. I can’t be bothered. This doesn’t fit into what I had planned for today.” No matter how many bad sermons I’ve heard on it, I am still not the Good Samaritan.

    • You mean you only have the “not me, not now” feeling with strangers on the bus/street? I have the same experience with friends and family––I’m constantly having to remind myself that trying to show love to people trumps whatever silly plans of mine happened to be interrupted when God broke in. I’ve never regretted the times I chose to set my plans aside and act, but even though God gives me plenty of chances to practice, I’m not very good at it.

  2. I wandered over here from your guest post on Introverted Church. Hi!

    In Mexico and the American Southwest, it is traditional to set out luminarias on Christmas Eve. I don’t know what people used to use, but nowadays they are brown paper sacks (the little ones like you might have packed lunch in when you were little) with sand or a brick to weight them, and a votive candle. You line the path to your house (the sidewalk, driveway, up the path to the door and, traditionally, also your roof) with them, and light them as dark falls on Christmas Eve. They are supposed to guide the Christ child to your home (providing light for the Light of the World, what a funny concept) and show Him He is welcome there.

    They make electrical versions now (which makes a lot more sense for the roof thing–no thank you, house fires), but I always preferred the real ones. When we drove around looking at Christmas lights when I was a kid, the real luminarias were always outshone by the dazzling traditional Christmas lights or neon plastic electric luminarias. But we always sought out the houses with the real ones (and put them out ourselves), and there was something poignant and peaceful about their quiet light.

    I still put out luminarias each year, though now I live in Oklahoma and I don’t think anyone else knows what I’m doing. My husband and I have electric lights, which I never had growing up, and even a little light-up penguin for the yard (his name is Peter and I love him dearly). But those luminarias, those brown paper bags with the dim burning candles, they are still my favorite. Amidst the overwhelming dazzle of Christmas, they seem a more fitting, gentle welcome for a Baby born not in a fluorescent hospital but a dimly lit stable, all those years ago.

    • Hi, Katie––welcome!

      That’s a lovely description of luminarias. I’ve only seen them in photos… I guess the Midwest is not so excited about them. I’m glad you keep putting them out––maybe you’ll inspire OK, and spread the luminaria tradition. (And the lighted penguin tradition––Peter sounds fantastic!)

      I wonder what it is about candlelight? I feel the same way, as much as I like all the strings of electric lights I hang.

      • I have seen an increasing number of electric luminaria strings in Tulsa. So that means three, I think, BUT obviously they are all inspired by my own display. 😉

        Candlelight–perhaps it’s because it’s “real” or natural, the same way real wood and real leather and natural fabrics have a particular attraction. That there’s something honest in an artificial, synthetic world.

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