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Carroll County Times Opinion

Batavick: Christmas lights remind us we don’t have to walk alone in the darkness | COMMENTARY

It started a little before Thanksgiving, with first one neighbor and then another. Trees and bushes were draped; doors and windows festooned; wreaths were hung on front doors. Then on Thanksgiving night, the neighborhood erupted in an explosion of lights. Beaming, twinkling, red, green, white, and blue lights. It was beautiful!

I could ask for no better remedy to the travails and trials of 2020, a year of masks, hand sanitizer, quarantines, social distancing, record unemployment, sickness, and death — a year of plague. As we await the administration of a vaccine, these lights are the best approach to banishing darkness, both literally and figuratively, from the nation’s landscape. The harrowing void of blackness must always concede to light, whether from a single candle or a string of LED bulbs that would have delighted Edison. There is simply no contest. We can sprint from oblivion to existence in an instant with the striking of a match or flicking of a switch.

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We go through life trying to “shed a light on things,” consigning the dead to “peace, sweetness, and light,” looking forward to “the light of day,” and seeking to find “the light of one’s life.” We look for light “at the end of a tunnel” and hope we are not hiding our own “under a bushel.” We fervently believe “it’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Light has come to represent everything from understanding and eternal rest to someone who gives you joy and hope — all good and noble things worthy of pursuit.

So why the connection between light and Christmas? It’s a long story entwined in the vines of myth and tradition. Martin Luther, the Catholic monk turned Protestant reformer, is widely credited with putting the first lit candle on a Christmas tree back in 1525. He wished it to represent the birth of Christ, the “Light of the World.” In John’s Gospel, 8:12, Jesus proclaims, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

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As for putting candles in the window, we have the Irish Catholics during colonial times to thank. Back then the Church of England tried to suppress the Roman Catholic faith in the new world, so priests were forced to travel in secret to homes to celebrate Mass. At Christmas time, these Irish placed lit candles in their windows and left their doors open so priests could find refuge and worship with them.

Today, some Christians equate candles in the window with the star that guided the Magi to the stable in Bethlehem. It is purely serendipitous that our Jewish friends celebrate Hanukkah around the same time as Christmas. This year the holiday, often called the Festival of Lights, ran from December 10 through 18, and the faithful commonly place a candelabrum with nine candles or bulbs in windows to commemorate a time when a single jug of oil miraculously burned for eight days, fueling the Temple’s eternal flame.

We didn’t own a car when I was a kid. Around Christmas, my uncle Tom would often pick the family up to cruise about the South Jersey suburbs to view decorations. This was during the pre-seatbelt era, so our family of six would squeeze into his car, some necessarily sitting on laps. We’d appropriately “ooh” and “aah” over what folks had done with strings of bulbs in this pre-blow-up, lawn ornament time. Often, the most modest of bungalows bested the grand houses in the ritzier neighborhoods.

Glistening snow can appear magical at night by transforming decorated shrubs and hedges into a dreamscape of billowing clouds with muted, twinkling colors within. But woe to any homeowner who chose to solely use blue bulbs. Uncle Tom didn’t read this as “classy” and wisecracked that it looked like the resident was “ready for Freddie,” his euphemism for the undertaker.

Light isn’t just the absence of darkness. It represents the presence of something, an illuminating source with the transformative power to banish the fears of night and comfort us in its glow. At this special time of year, it’s proper to acknowledge that the ultimate source of all light was and remains a babe born over two millennia ago.

As coronavirus ills continue to swirl about, holiday lights are a reminder that we don’t have to walk alone in darkness and that the “light of life” always remains within our reach and grasp. So, embrace it this Christmas to disperse the shadows surrounding you and do your best to keep it burning brightly thereafter in your sacred space within.

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears every other Friday. Email him at fjbatavick@gmail.com.


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