During this season of short, dark days, candles and lights are important elements in winter celebrations around the world. The earliest winter solstice ceremonies involved the use of fire because people in ancient times feared that the failing light would not return unless humans intervened with ceremony and celebration. As new religions were introduced to humanity, fire continued to be an important part of many of their celebrations because it symbolizes the Light of God.
Muslim Iranians still light fires to observe Yalda, the Persian Winter Solstice celebration that originated with the ancient religion of Mithraism. The Mithraists believed that the winter solstice was the night that Mithra, Persian god of light and truth, was born to a virgin mother. After this longest night of the year, the daily increase in sunlight symbolized the triumph of the sun god over the powers of darkness.
The celebration of Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks, and the rededication of the temple at Jerusalem. Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights, which Jewish families observe by lighting a candle for each of the eight days that comprise the Hanukkah celebration.
Christians observe the advent of Christmas by lighting a candle on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. These candles symbolize hope, love, faith and joy. The white candle in the center of the circle is lit on Christmas Eve to symbolize the birth of the Christ Child. The wise men, astrologers from Persia, found the baby Jesus by following the light of a great star.
Of all the symbols attributed to the divine, light is the one found most frequently throughout the world’s holy writings. Anyone who is familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures knows that they are full of references to light and fire, starting at the beginning when God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Light is the very first thing that God created from the “formless void” of the heavens and the earth. The author of Genesis does not specify the sun as the source of this light. The sun and the stars were not created until the fourth day. This discrepancy may be the misunderstanding of the author’s primitive mind. But science tells us that deep in space, there are over 400 million photons of non-visible light per cubic meter!
The Bhagavad Gita, holy book of Hinduism, also contains many references to Divine Light, including this: “I see Thee, hard to look at . . . With the glory of flaming fire and sun, immeasurable. I see Thee, whose face is flaming fire, burning this whole universe with Thy radiance.”
Zoroastrianism was founded in Persia sometime between 1500 and 600 B.C. Zoroastrians believe in a single god: Ahura Mazda, the “Spirit of Light and Good.” The religious rituals of Zoroastrianism are performed before sacred fires, which represent God. The wise men who followed the light of a bright star to find the child Jesus, are widely believed to have been Zoroastrian priests and astronomers.
The child Jesus grew up to be Jesus the Christ, who said to his followers: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are bad, your body also is full of darkness.” (Luke 11:34)
Jesus also said: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-17)
We are now in the midst of a cold, dark winter — the season when we are in the most need of warmth and light! In the dark of winter, we like to light candles and decorate with strings of electric lights, to brighten the early evenings. And the long winter nights provide more opportunities to spend time going within to seek the inner light. When seen with our spiritual eyes, this inner light will shine so brightly that our bodies will be full of light. Let us radiate our light out into the world, to bring peace and goodwill to all of creation.
Emily VanLaeys of Oneonta is a freelance writer and editor. She is a certified life-cycle celebrant specializing in personalized weddings. She has performed ceremonies all over New York state and has received the Wedding Wire Bride’s Choice Award for the past two years.