Into the Lights
in darkness let us sing,
brightness now returning,
House of prayer once dark and cold
now with candles burning.
When the lamp seemed empty
and its fire forever spent,
Then the flame sprang up anew
for our hearts’ deep yearning.
Rosenwald, “Maoz Tzur”
St. Lucia was an Italian girl, but she’s made a big hit
with the Swedes.
St. Lucia festivals, held during the darkest days of December,
feature a procession of white-robed, red-ribbon-waisted girls
all singing the haunting “Santa Lucia” song. The oldest girl
gets to wear a crown of burning candles on her head and she
carries a plate full of saffron buns for the family to eat.
It’s all very pretty, but also somehow very moving. One year
my oldest daughter was a St. Lucia and I can still see her
dark, serious eyes beneath the heavy crown of candles.
The real St. Lucy didn’t have it so easy. As a part of her
martyrdom her eyes were gouged out. The folklore that grew
up around her says that she returned from death carrying her
eyes on a plate.
For the Swedes she is celebrated as the mythical figure who
brings light into deepest darkness. Of course, the Swedes
have domesticated her, turning her into a caring daughter
bearing breakfast treats and bringing coffee.
But if you think about it, there is still something a little
dangerous about a crown of fire on a young girl’s head. And
the saffron buns she presents—they are really representations
of Lucia’s eyes, the assurance that vision is still possible,
even in the darkness.
The Swedes aren’t the only ones who seem concerned about seeing
through the darkness. Nature is at its extreme now.
I’m convinced that one of the ways we confront these last
dark days of December is in personal or religious rituals
that involve light. Light is central to both the Jewish and
Christian December holidays—in the menorah and the Advent
wreath. Even the gaudiest displays of holiday lights you see
driving down your street seem to me to be a part of the atavistic
and ritualized seeking for illumination. We are trying to
look through the darkness for what lies ahead. And limited
vision is better than none at all.
A couple of weeks ago at the evening meditation service at
the church I serve, we sat in silence and almost total darkness.
But at the front of the church the Advent wreath was lit and
there was a little table filled with 16 white tapers, glowing
like a corona.
Outside it had started to snow and the flakes were so dense
they looked like the ashes of Pompeii raining down. The wind
bullied the building, catching underneath the big overhangs
of the roof and making them groan and crack. Then the wind
made a noise that for all the world sounded like a giantess’
mournful keening. Nature seemed very big. Our candles seemed
We are entering into the long winter darkness. We are leaving
behind a whole year of our lives, never to be called back
to us. We are facing an unknown number of days of cold. Spring
is far away and there is no way to summon time either forward
or backward. We can only sit in the dark unknown and wait.
And yet, there is still the light.
One of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen takes
place on Christmas Eve on Lexington Parkway in Old Niskayuna.
Lexington Parkway is a wide suburban boulevard. The houses
are well-spaced, probably built by GE scientists and executives
in the heyday of the company. But there is nothing to particularly
distinguish it from many other streets in older, quiet suburbs
like Old Niskayuna.
But on Christmas Eve, around 6 PM neighbors up and down both
sides set out luminaria the whole length of the boulevard.
There are no other lights to take your eyes away from the
luminaria— no blinking, twinkling, gaudy distractions.
As far as you can see there are little candles glowing in
paper bags. I don’t know the history of this. I don’t know
if some neighbors have to be coerced into setting out the
lights or if there is some remarkable consensus that this
is a worthwhile thing to do. But by some agreement that astonishes
me, neighbors of all variety of religious and cultural and
aesthetic orientations have agreed to make a highway of light
in the darkness.
It only lasts for an hour or so, but it is one of the most
beautiful things I have ever seen: an unbroken line of muted
lights giving both a sense of comfort and of vision.
Early on Christmas Eve night I drive over to the church where,
in a little while, there will be a service of candlelight
and singing. I go early because I like very much to be there
when the building is empty and the smell of pine and the creaking
roof is all there is to keep me company.
So when families are beginning to gather together for the
evening, I am setting off alone. And when I get to Lexington
Parkway, I turn off my headlights. I drive very, very slowly
up and down the boulevard.
It is completely silent. Sometimes there will be another car
or two, but mostly the street is deserted; people are inside
where there is incandescent light and bright sound.
I pass along a silent way fare. I drive up and down a few
times, letting my mind be still and wordless as I move along
through the light. I never want the moments to end.
But I do have promises to keep. I turn off the boulevard
and go the rest of the way to the dark church. There, I will
unlock the doors and go inside. Shadows fill the empty hallway.
Soon there will be music. Soon there will be more light. Soon
the community will gather.