Life and Light in the Dead of Winter

From Kwanzaa candles to Christmas’s electric festoons, end-of-year holidays bring light to the northern hemisphere’s darkest months. Light crackling and twinkling merrily against a frozen winter backdrop is a promise of warmth to come, both physically and metaphorically, and humanity has many traditions to celebrate that promise.

Heat the Hearth

The tradition of burning a yule log to celebrate the winter solstice hearkens back to pre-medieval times. The practice cleared the air, so to speak, of the past year, and merry-makers welcomed the return of spring. Like many wintertime traditions, this one was eventually adopted into Christian celebrations. The logs grew smaller to match shrinking fireplaces, and for many the practice of baking log-shaped cakes replaced the original burning tradition.

Royal Christmas Card from Duke and Duchess of York:

Royal Christmas Card from Duke and Duchess of York: “Bringing in the Yule Log” Sun, Oct 31, 1926 – 133 · Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · Newspapers.com

Candle Customs

Throughout the festival of Hanukkah, eight candles are lit in memory of a successful rebellion and a miracle of oil.

Hannukiah, Chanukah menorah, presented 1951

Hannukiah, Chanukah menorah, presented 1951 Fri, Mar 23, 1951 – Page 6 · The Times Record (Troy, New York) · Newspapers.com

Kwanzaa sees candles lit as well. Seven candles of red, black, and green, each one a reminder of Kwanzaa’s core principles.

Lightling the Kwanzaa candles, 1975

Lightling the Kwanzaa candles, 1975 Sat, Dec 27, 1975 – Page 7 · The Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) · Newspapers.com

Saint Lucia, a Christian martyr celebrated mostly in Italy and Scandinavian countries, is represented with a crown of candles to light the way and keep her hands free to help those around her.

Saint Lucia and her candle crown

Saint Lucia and her candle crown Thu, Dec 13, 1979 – 53 · The Vancouver Sun (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) · Newspapers.com

Christmas trees were traditionally lit with candles, despite the risk of fire and the fiddly nature of trying to place candles on unstable branches. One legend claims Martin Luther, historic figure of the Protestant Reformation, was the first to so trim a tree.

Lights in the tree like stars in the forest, Martin Luther legend

Lights in the tree like stars in the forest, Martin Luther legend Fri, Dec 23, 1904 – Page 1 · Breathitt County News (Jackson, Kentucky) · Newspapers.com

It’s Electric

In 1882, Christmas went electric when Edward Johnson, VP of the Edison Electric Light Company, displayed a tree in his New York home illuminated with electric lights. President Grover Cleveland’s family Christmas tree shone bright with multicolored bulbs in 1894.

Grover Cleveland's electrically lit Christmas Tree, 1894

Grover Cleveland’s electrically lit Christmas Tree, 1894 Tue, Dec 25, 1894 – 1 · () · Newspapers.com

The bright shine of festive electricity remained out of reach for most until the turn of the century, when slightly more affordable pre-wired string lights made an appearance. General Electric was the first to introduce them in 1903. But when their attempt to patent the invention fell through, the market opened to competitors and prices began to drop.

What yearly traditions bring light to your winter days?

Find more about light-centered traditions like those above with a search on Newspapers.com.

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