This week, daylight will wither.
In the darkness of the last days of the year, we reach out for light, seek family and friends, give thanks for health and life, and praise the power above. There is nothing modern about this urge. Ancient people must have hated the short, cold days of winter even more than we do.
Is culture at war in America? That is the darkness that many of us are pushing away this winter.
My parents lived through the Great Depression and World War II, and they brought the traditions that illuminated those shadows to my childhood celebrations. Bing Crosby sang, a reassuring voice for them.
My stocking always held an orange, because my mother remembered them as a Christmas treat. Perhaps it tasted of home to her parents from Southern Italy, living in New England. Growing up in Phoenix, I could walk outside and pick an orange, so her treat was useless filler in my stocking, but it was always there, because she wanted to share her remembered happiness.
My father had strong feelings about the evergreen we brought into the house. He preferred a spruce. And every year, he argued that the tree should not be brought inside until Christmas Eve, which was his family’s Northern European tradition.
I brought away those details, sure, but mostly I brought home the atmosphere holiday-heavy with love in my parents’ house.
When I married and had children, we lit the candles of Hanukkah, hoping to share the smoky shadow of another dark time that was illuminated by hope and faith. The Hebrew prayers came slowly to my ex-husband’s lips — like my family, his had focused on the love and tradition of the season — but that didn’t make the candles less bright.
All of these traditions — candles, evergreens, tastes and songs — have roots in our cultural DNA. But when we embrace new traditions, does it make the old ones less?
My father by nature was more pagan than Protestant, so the evergreen boughs resonated with him. My Catholic mother saved a spot near the Christmas tree for her crèche. One of my sisters always read aloud the story of the birth of the Christ child.
Later, as I learned to cook latkes, and I read books to my children about the solstice festivals of the Romans, the Celts, the Native Americans and the Druids, I picked and chose traditions to light the darkness. I let go of the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. But I hung on to mistletoe, caroling and pannettone. I added a Yule log. The traditions blend, but they all celebrate the growing light.
This is what early Christians did, too; they blended. In 4th century Rome, seeking the right moment to celebrate the birth of their God, they chose a few days after the darkest day of the year. They knew that they were scheduling their holiday in a week already full of the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
Christians hoped to blur holidays, so that others would begin to associate the rebirth of the sun with this new Christian celebration of the birth of the Son.
The plan worked. But now, a few of us have begun to resist the mix of holidays. There are concerns about the words of greetings, the designs of paper cups. Yet, if ever there is a time to focus on what we share, not how we differ, surely it is now.
Pagans share their beautiful festival of light, with its holly, pine cones, folkloric figures and love. We all share food, drink and song from more recent ancestral traditions. Whether we are Christians, Jews, Wiccans or Buddhists, we remember the original reason for the season: thanks for the lengthening of days, the love of family and friends.
These holidays have all become one messy, intertwined festival of light, faith, family, song, evergreen and fire. And it is good. Merry holidays, everyone.
Barbara Parsons is a college English professor and writer who lives in Tacoma’s North End. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.