I have just finished putting out my rows of milk cartons with 24-hour votives lit inside them. It is the evening of Dec. 21, the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. For those of us who migrated to the North Country, winter solstice is a bit of a non-event in terms of marking the official beginning of winter. Most of us have had our snow tires on since mid-November, and the first snows — and snow days — have usually already arrived, along with a few sub-zero mornings of warming up the car before bundling the kids in for the drive to school, despite the fact that modern cars do not actually need warming up, despite the fact that idling the engine contributes to global warming and our own family’s carbon footprint.
Yet because the sun has been setting so early and rising so late, winter solstice is also an occasion to celebrate here in Vermont. My kindergartener marvels — as do I — that it can be before dinnertime, much less bedtime, and still have been dark as midnight for over an hour. I am a firm believer in living as close to our circadian and seasonal rhythms as modern life will allow, so I try not to wake up the kids until there is at least some light in the sky (though putting them to bed at 5 pm hasn’t quite worked out). I allow myself the luxury of putting on a layer of brown subcutaneous fat to help protect against the cold. When I do wake up before sunrise, on goes my faithful light box to ward off Seasonal Affective Disorder (depression caused by lack of natural sunlight). Winter Solstice is a way to celebrate the tendencies toward sloth and gluttony that are part of the season, and to mark the increasing light, a minute more each day, through the rest of the winter.
Before I had children, my husband and I would light candles and dance around the evening of solstice. When we moved to Park Street in Brandon several years ago, however, we found a tradition already in place: the lighting of luminaries on Christmas Eve up and down the sidewalk. A neighbor had started the project to celebrate the message of peace that Jesus preached, and it had spread not only all along Park Street, but along other streets in town with sidewalks. We inherited a set of luminaries from the previous owners: white gallon jug milk cartons with a hole cut in one side and sand in the bottom to hold the votive candles in place. Every year, we get a reminder in the mailbox to put out our luminaries on Christmas Eve, and the local florist and gift shop in town stocks 24-hour votives in bulk to handle demand.
Our first year in Brandon, I truly agonized over the request to put out the luminaries. My family celebrates Hanukah, not Christmas, so we already have a tradition of putting lights up in our window for eight days. I was also a little taken aback at being asked to observe someone else’s religious holiday on my own property. It’s like my relationship with keeping kosher: in my house, there is no pork, shrimp or lobster. But when we summer on Cape Cod, I do enjoy my clam chowder. I love Christmas and celebrate it with my in-laws every year, but I don’t buy my own children Christmas presents or put up a tree in my own house. So what to do about this request to light up the dark with candles that represent world peace — something I can definitely support — in honor of a day and a person that I do not believe to be the son of God?
The first few years, I simply took the default position of asking my Christian neighbors to do it for us while we were out of town for the actual event. But over the last few years, I decided to take the message and make it more consistent with my own beliefs and traditions. First, I got out my black sharpies and spelled out the letters for peace, shalom and salaam, one on each milk carton. Second, I started putting my luminaries out on the Winter Solstice, lining my front walkway instead of the sidewalk. Thus, my luminaries became a plea to humanity and to the Maker of Peace, Hu Ya’osey Shalom, in Hebrew, Arabic and English, to bring peace to the Holy Land and to the world, and on a day that every human being everywhere in the world experiences, at least as a scientific celestial event if not a religious or spiritual one.
Now when I go to my in-laws to celebrate Christmas, I ask my neighbors to light my luminaries every night that I am gone — including Christmas Eve. On another secular date, Jan. 1, I put them back in the barn until next year. Up until now, no one has commented one way or the other about my twist on the Park Street-Brandon luminaries tradition, but last night, as I brought my kids out into the cold to light the last votives and explained to them what the milk cartons spelled out and why, a passerby walking his dog said, “That’s a nice idea.”
Rebecca Reimers is a native of the New York City suburb of Teaneck, N.J., and a refugee of Westchester, N.Y. She has been living in Vermont for more than 13 years, in New Haven, Burlington, Middlebury and now in Brandon. She is a retired high school social studies teacher raising her three young sons with her husband, a native of the Boston area. Her thoughts on her community, and the surrounding towns of Leicester, Goshen and Forestdale, appear in "View from the Borderland," an online feature at the Addison Independent Web site.