We sat huddled around candles in the darkened cellar, heads bent toward the center of the circle. Together, we were taking part in a ritual that is among the oldest enacted by humans throughout our planet – that of sharing stories during winter’s long, dark nights.
This particular basement belongs to a small, beautiful Episcopal church and thus has been the storehouse for a multitude of Jewish and Christian narratives retold across much of the globe for two millennia. Each Sunday, congregants gather together to retell those stories, to ponder their significance, and to apply them to contemporary Western life. And a few days after this particular evening, many members of this particular group would be repeating some of the most cherished narratives of the Christian tradition.
But that night we were sharing other stories – some of them tales of events that actually occurred, others that may not have but are nonetheless true.
That night was a very special one, for it marked both the end of Hanukkah and the eve of Winter Solstice. Both of these holidays celebrate the miracle of light, and we had gathered together to remember and renew tales of illumination.
We lit Hanukkah candles and talked of a small tribe of people whose temple had been desecrated by foreign invaders but who nonetheless found the courage to rededicate themselves to their faith. That single act was the seed miracle for the miracle of light that followed, when a small amount of oil provided enough fuel to illuminate their sanctuary for eight nights.
We spoke too of communities across the Northern Hemisphere that have honored this darkest time of the year and welcomed the return of the light brought about by the Winter Solstice. Our ancestors of every ethnicity have celebrated the longest night and shortest day of the year in various ways. Some construct elaborate holy spaces for use at this event; others assemble during the dark of night to sing and hum as the sun rises on the shortest day each year.
And everywhere, during the darkest times, people continue to gather and share stories, just as we were doing. Conveying our narratives, both the personal ones and the collective ones, is one of the most significant ways humans choose to find and create meaning in our lives. These tales form the foundation of who we are.
A traveler among our group that night gifted our circle with his own personal narrative, replicating a significant tradition in story-telling in which someone new to the circle brings wisdom from afar. Almost fifty years ago, he was one of a group of young men fighting in a war thousands of miles from their homes. On Christmas Eve, their very young leader gathered them together, drinks were passed, and cheer was shared. He invited each of them to tell about their personal holiday traditions; and one by one, these young men talked of family gatherings, of favorite foods, and of ancient rituals.
Together, personal narratives from unique lives lived halfway around the globe were woven together in a collective tapestry.
And as we listened, we became part of that tapestry. We were there with those young men as witnesses to both that special Christmas Eve they created together and to each of the Christmases they were recounting.
I was not in the Vietnam War; I did not live through the Maccabbees’ miracle of rededication and finding the light. And my family of origin, which has relied on artificial light rather than on the sun alone for generations, does not gather together to sing the sun up on the shortest day of the year. So these stories may not be mine personally, but they become my stories when I consciously enter into them and allow myself to be formed by them. As part of our collective human narrative, they bring gifts of inspiration, faith, and grounding.
The young men gathered near the battlefield, the community rededicating themselves and their holy space after massive devastation – these are people joining to reaffirm through stories that the light can be found in the darkness. These narratives, like the Hanukkah candles and the campfire at the center of the circle, provide light and warmth during the darkest time of the year and during the darkest times in our lives. Like our native ancestors, as we share them, we are singing up the sun.