On December 26th, discarded Christmas trees already line Montclair’s curbs. Mostly Norway spruces grown specifically for the purpose of holiday fanfare, they lie defeated-looking at the culmination of a path of dried needles in the rare December snow. A symbol of everlasting light and life originating in pagan Roman traditions, these trees look more like the ushering out of the dark and heavy, dust collecting receptacles for family heirlooms. Their ornaments are removed from their protective wrappings but once a year, for a fleeting few weeks, to fool us all that the darkest nights of the year are actually bathed in light and life, by our trees strung with electric lights, to convince us that the longest winter nights are no less enlightening than the brightest of late Spring days.
According to many Biblical scholars, Jesus was actually born sometime in the fall, when the flocks were grazing in the fields. The coupling of Christian and pagan symbolism gave a clearer understanding of what early Christians were presenting to the world. In fact, in all major religions of our world, the symbol of light equates enlightenment and understanding on a spiritual level, a more complete conception of our place in the world. Light shall reach us even in the darkest days.
Thousands of years before, Judaism employed the same imagery. In the Old Testament, Genesis, God said “’Let there be light!’ and there was light.” A first step, the imagery foundation of the entire creation story is simply light, a metaphor for spiritual awareness. God appears in a blinding light to Moses, in the form of a burning bush, to enlighten him about the nature of God and his covenant with the Jewish people.
The entire Old Testament (and New one for that matter) is littered with the same metaphor. “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify…” The light is godliness, spirit, that is transformative and points back to its source, God.
In the Islamic tradition, the symbolism is strikingly similar. The Koran reads: “God is the light of the heavens and the earth.” The parable of his light, is of a niche containing a lamp. According to this scripture, the lamp is enclosed in glass and shines “like a radiant star.” It, in turn, is “lit from a blessed tree” – an olive tree that is neither of the east nor of the west with oil burning so bright that it would give light of itself, even though fire had not touched it.” In other words, light upon light. In some interpretations, Buddhism also includes a Divine Light: “God almighty (Brahman) resides within all humans as Light, a fact that is supported by all scriptures.” (www.adishakti.org).
The light symbolizes enlightenment, the lamp a revelation, the tree is more of an extension of that revelation, which roots in the earth and branches out to all traditions, both of the East and the West. The flame of the lamp is a powerful symbol, as well, in independent schools as a symbol of the more mundane knowledge. Ceremonies are performed where the light is passed from candle to candle just as valuable scholarship is passed from professor to pupil. In suburban Summit, New Jersey, The Kent Place School maxim reads “With Wisdom She Lights The Way.”
Light symbolism seems to transcend faith and is universal. It can be found in literature of all genres, and shines in countless poems, stories, songs as well as books of faith. Ernest Hemingway’s desperate man seeks comfort in a clean, well lit café since religion gave him nothing, in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Edith Wharton previously conjured the metaphor: “There are two ways of spreading light; to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Even Helen Keller wrote that “knowledge is love and light and vision.”
In Science, light is simply a concentrated series of particles — electromagnetic radiation — that has a wavelength and may be perceived by the human eye.
Before the New Year, when the days have barely begun to lengthen, our ceremonial trees, delivery system for our strings of electric light, are already discarded from our homes. We await the universal, natural, tangible light: the Spring Equinox that will usher hours more of daylight, green crocus sprout from leftover piles of a late snow fall, and chickens in back yard coops will begin to lay their eggs again. Stores will remove wool from their shelves and replace it with linen. Suburbanites will clean out their homes to make way for the three months of waiting for the reassurance that our Earth will orbit closer to our sun to warm our skin again. Collectively the human condition unites us in a universal symbol, a quest that transcends creed. Understanding will reach us all like sunlight, and we will choose to turn our faces towards it with courageous curiosity.
May the blessing of light be on you –
light without and light within.
May the blessed sunlight shine on you
and warm your heart
til it glows like a great peat fire.
-An Old Celtic Blessing
For further reading, please see A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, by Karen Armstrong, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1993.