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Faith in Vermont: This Little Light

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Posted on December 19, 2017 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



One week ago, my daughters made beeswax candles for the first time. Before you get impressed, this was not the sort of candle making that involves dipping wicks into a vat of hot wax; our sort of candle making involved ordering sheets of colored beeswax and a spool of wicking. Cut a length of wicking about one inch longer than the beeswax, lay it at one end of the sheet, and roll. Voila!

It’s one of the simplest and most satisfying crafts our family has ever done. Everyone – from our four-year-old on up – was able to produce nice-looking and useable candles. The older girls got fancy, rolling their beeswax sheets into spiral tapers and cutting shapes from different colors to decorate their candles.

My parents hosted the candle making in their mudroom, perfect because the floor’s radiant heat made the beeswax more pliable. All together, my daughters and some friends spent two hours rolling beeswax on that floor, producing an impressive number of candles.

Most of these candles were gifts for friends and teachers. That’s the beauty of winter candle making: No matter what you celebrate this time of year, it involves candles.

My own family’s celebration of Advent – the four weeks before Christmas – involves candles. We place our spiral wooden candleholder on the dining room table and put a white candle in each of the twenty-four holes. Starting on December 1, we light one new candle each night.

One of the great excitements of this year is that nearly all of my daughters are old enough to light candles on their own. It’s a skill that they’re eager to practice, so, over the past week, we have eaten dinner (and sometimes breakfast and lunch) alongside the blaze of an impressive number of candles; on the evening this column appears, we will have 24 candles going on our table (19 Advent candles, and five of my daughters’ handmade ones.)

Almost as fun as lighting candles is blowing them out, which, in our house, is a competitive sport. I’m expecting the amount of smoke produced by my daughters’ huffing and puffing to set off our smoke detector before Christmas Eve, and I’m planning to spend all of January scraping the wax off of our table.

***

Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are now heading into the Winter Solstice – the shortest day and darkest night of the year.

I demonstrated the mechanics of the Winter Solstice to my daughters by having one hold a flashlight and stand in place as our “Sun,” while her sister stood facing her, holding our globe with the North Pole pointing away from the “Sun.” It’s a simple demonstration, and gives us a logical explanation for these darker days: our world is positioned so that our hemisphere gets the least amount of light.

Most previous generations didn’t have flashlights, globes, or enough knowledge of astronomy to put the Winter Solstice into perspective. There is a reason why so many traditions have celebrations involving candles at this time of year: from Roman Saturnalia, to Germanic Yule, Iranian Yalda, the Asian Dongzhi Festival, and Zuni Shalako, cultural history is filled with festivals on or around the Winter Solstice involving various rites and sacrifices designed to insure that the sun would return.

It would have been a reasonable fear, as darkness edged deeper and deeper into each day. And the fact that it was an annual occurrence -- that the sun always did win out in the end? Well, that meant that our rites and sacrifices were working. Another example of how we humans are able to convince ourselves that we’re in control.

***

This year’s season of darkness has also been a season of death around our family. Life cycles just like light, and often deaths cluster together around a particular block of calendar squares. The deaths we have mourned this month have ranged from a family friend’s six-year-old daughter, to my 97-year-old great uncle.

The death of a fellow child, in particular, made my own children aware of their mortality for the first time. One morning, I found my eight-year-old sobbing underneath the Lego table. When I asked her what was wrong, she choked out: “You only get one life.”

Amid all this darkness and death, the snow started falling. Our first real snow of the year.

***

Here’s what I’m noticing about the Winter Solstice this year: Although it’s dark, there is still light. And I’m much more aware of what light there is.

The sun will rise today at 7:23 AM, and it will set at 4:16 PM. But that’s not the whole story: There’s also first light and last light, which extend the light by about 30 minutes on either end.

First light and its counterpart, last light, are commonly called “twilight.” There are different kinds of twilight – astronomical, nautical, and civil – depending on the Sun’s angle to the horizon, but all refer to the same phenomenon: the time when the Sun is below the horizon, but its rays continue to light the sky. My daughters did an art project to illustrate the look of the sky during first and last light: They made wide stripes of color with pastel chalk on purple, pink, or blue backgrounds, and glued a black silhouette along the bottom.

I’m almost always outside at first and last light these days, taking care of our poultry, walking the dog, or shuttling daughters home from activities. First light and last light have become my favorite times of day, when the sky is enough to make up for the season’s overall lack of light. At our house, where we have a view towards the Green Mountains, evening twilight has an added benefit: The Sun’s sinking rays illuminate the mountainsides, which look like they’ve been dipped in gold, or wrapped in purple velvet.

After the Sun’s rays disappear, we light candles.

***

The other night, we walked to a holiday party at a neighbor’s house. Because the Sun had long since set and there were no streetlights, one of my daughters wore a headlamp to illumine our way.

A few steps from the lights of our house, we became aware of the incredible light show in the clear night sky.

I’m talking about the stars, of course.

My daughters, who spent this fall reading Greek mythology, were thrilled to recognize the constellations they’d studied. “Look! There’s Orion! And the scorpion!”

In the midst of their exclamations, one turned to the sister with the headlamp and begged, “Turn off the headlamp! Turn it off, so we can see the stars better!”

It reminded me that sometimes, when we lose one light, it allows us to see others that, while perhaps not as bright, are no less beautiful.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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