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Light and enlightenment [Editorial]

Hanukkah

Sunrise on this Friday, a week and a day before the shortest day of the year, was at 7:18 a.m. and the time of the day's sun set is 4:44 p.m., which means out of this 24 hour span, only 9 hours, 26 minutes and 3 seconds would be considered daytime.

By Dec. 21, the length of the day will have contracted by about another two minutes. Contrast this with June 21, 2014, the first day of summer in the coming year and the longest day of the year, which is predicted to last just shy of 15 hours.

Sure, it's true there's a bit more light provided by the sun at this time of year, as day break comes a bit before sunrise, and dusk doesn't fully take effect right at sunset. Still, there's no denying there's an awful lot of darkness at this time of year, and the little bit of pre-sunrise and post sunset light this time of year is nothing compared to the lingering evenings of summertime.

It really shouldn't be much of a surprise, then, that this is a season to celebrate the light. A little more than a week ago, the annual eight-night festival of lights celebrated by people of the Jewish faith concluded. Each evening, usually in December, but this year starting in November and overlapping the more modern holiday of Thanksgiving, as the shortest days of the year are casting their pall on spirits, Jews observe Hanukkah by lighting a candle a night.

It celebrates a miracle from ancient times when oil needed to illuminate the Temple expected to last only a single day lasted eight days.

Hanukkah, though, isn't a holiday tied to a specific anniversary, but to predictably dark days during darkest time of the year, thus, it's no coincidence that Hanukkah is linked to the new moon (or the dark of the moon, if you prefer), making the importance of the festival's lights that much more evident. Indeed, the menorah that was lighted at Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace was a sight to behold on the eighth night of the celebration.

Christian tradition of this time of year also involves lights. There's good reason to believe the general use of lights in the celebration of Christmas is linked to lights in modern times because in pre-Christian Europe, lights were an important part of the marking of the shortest day of the year each winter. Early church leaders linked the importance of physical light to the enlightenment offered by the faith they preached and linked the celebration of lights to the celebration (or mass) of the birth of Christ (Christ's mass).

Just as the menorah is especially striking at this time of year, so are lighted Christmas trees.

As always, Christmas, with its fixed calendar date, falls after the shortest day, as daylight is beginning to grow. This year, Hanukkah fell a good deal earlier, but the nights in the few weeks leading to the shortest day of the year are increasingly illuminated by a waxing moon.

It's easy to forget just how important light is to we people. It is possible, thanks to modern marvels like electricity, to keep lights glowing 24 hours a day, which is something some of us do.

Natural light from the sun, however, continues to overpower just about every kind of illuminations we puny humans can produce.

It seems like the people of ancient times had a pretty good idea way back when they began the traditions of pondering the importance of light at this time of year.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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