PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
Have you read a dark book lately? Watched a dark or scary movie? Had a bright idea? Or come up with an enlightening thought? In English, dark images are often perceived negatively, while light means something positive and uplifting.
Actually, the connection between dark and negativity, and light and happiness, extends beyond language and culture. In the northern hemisphere December has the fewest hours of sunlight and, at the same time, Christians, Jews, and other faith traditions are celebrating holidays of light. It’s no surprise that these holidays come as a human response to the darkness found during this time of year and the psychological impact that the long nights have on our lives.
In Alaska the extremes of day and night in the summer and winter can often impact the mental health of many people. For instance, during an Alaskan summer the sun starts setting at 10:30 pm or later (some areas don’t have any night at all). In the winter, on the other hand, the sun sets at 2:30 pm or earlier (some areas don’t have any daylight at all). In order for the sunset to go from one extreme to another, the sun actually sets about 25 minutes earlier each week; that equals three to four minutes per day! The difference is so palpable that the human body can physiologically feel the increasing darkness. Imagine that you are going through a tough time in life or if you are depressed. As the sun sets earlier and earlier, it is easy for people to grow increasingly unhappy.
Not surprisingly, you will find that many religious traditions celebrate festivals of light during the fall and winter months, the darkest time of the year. For example, the Hindus celebrate their festival of light, Diwali, in the northern hemisphere between mid-October and mid-November. Diwali symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. Most Christian traditions celebrate advent and Christmas in December with candles and lights. Colored or white lights are strung on Christmas trees and adorn the front of many houses in a spirit of celebration. The Jewish community also celebrates their festival of lights, Hanukkah, in December or January. Finally, many earth-centered spiritual traditions mark Yule in the end of December as a mid-winter festival with lights.
Perhaps there is a common reason for so many traditions to celebrate light at this time of year. During the darkest times of the year, or during the darkest times of our lives, we need to be reminded that darkness doesn’t endure. It never lasts. Spring is around the corner—the time when nature begins to wake up, blooms sprout on trees and flowers erupt with color. New life is born, and the days begin to grow longer, resulting in more daylight. There is theology in the changing seasons of the year. Light always follows the darkness and hope bursts into our lives like a ray of sunshine.
No matter how depressed you are, how dark your life is, or the problems that are in the world, there is always hope. The divine light is always around us. It’s there to support us in the worst of times.
So, as you celebrate your holiday of light, whatever your tradition, look around you. How can you be a light for someone else? Does someone at work, at home, in your neighborhood or community need you to shine a bright light into their life or heart? Our American culture preaches “life is all about me,” but most faith traditions teach otherwise. When we focus on others, and tend to their needs as well as our own, our light burns brighter and we find ourselves experiencing true joy, lasting peace, and a light in our hearts.
Finally, as we shine our proverbial lights our paths are illuminated, allowing us to see what is around us so we can count our blessings. Is there someone you love or someone who loves you? What good things are you looking forward to next year? Always remember that even in the darkest times of our lives, light is just over the mountain or around the corner. So, this winter, remember to keep shining your light to those around you. The light you get back will seep into the crevices of your soul and shine on those in your path. Happy Holidays!