On the last day before I begin my Advent blogging in earnest, I will reflect on lights and warmth and the spirit that binds people together at this time of year. Over the past several years, at this time of year, I have reflected on a song that I believe I first heard on WTMD—the Towson University radio station. It is a song by Dar Williams called The Christians and the Pagans. The song is a nice example of story telling about things that have the potential to draw us together even when they also have the potential (sometimes just as strong) to pull us apart. The basic plot of the story that is told is that a woman and what I presume to be her partner from the way the story is told were celebrating solstice near the home of one woman’s uncle. They call the uncle looking for a place to stay. As the story unfolds the pagan traditions of celebrating solstice are shown to be not so different in spirit from the Christian traditions around the holidays. And the feeling of love and family that comes from this gathering of individuals is projected onto other family relations.
I am someone who just likes to see people get along (although I won’t quote Rodney King here). I am someone with the conviction of my personal beliefs; however, I am usually unwilling and uninterested in imposing on others. I like to think that when all is said and done most of what different cultures and religions believe is not interchangeable by any means but comes from a common sense of humanity that can be shared rather than driving divisions between us. So, the song speaks to me.
At this season of the year, this type of theme makes me think of the Festival of Lights at the Waldorf School of Baltimore. The festival does not celebrate pagan traditions—except to the degree that a basic human motivation is to enjoy light in what is otherwise a time of darkness as the shortest day of the year approaches. The Festival does not celebrate the pagan traditions directly but celebrates Chanukah, Advent, and Kwanzaa. All of those festivals involve bringing light. All the festivals focus (as in the song by Dar Williams) on making sense of history. The common theme is clear. The music that comes with each of them is generally music of joy and rejoicing that there is hope where there might otherwise be despair.
The song by Dar Williams ends with the phrase “drawing warmth out of the cold.” This goes along with hope when there might otherwise be despair, and this line has so many meanings as I read it in the lyrics online and listen to the song.
First, it could mean the warmth of being in the light. Warmth in this case being a feeling of protection. Being able to find my way when I am lost. A sense of security.
Second, following on the first, it follows that light comes from fire on the candles. Fire on the candles is a small version of the fire that keeps me warm. Fire can be a bon fire. Fire can be in a fireplace. Fire can even be natural gas being burned in a heater to make me warm at home.
Third, it could mean the warm feelings that come from being part of a family or community that celebrates the Advent or Chanukah tradition (or even a pagan tradition) together. The feeling of being part of a group. The feeling of being surrounded by those who share the tradition. Who share the values.
Fourth, it can be running at this time of year. I know this is on a non-religious tangent. But, running at sunrise in December is certainly a situation in which I am surrounded by people whose values I share (when it comes to running) and in the cold seeking warmth. The celebration is of nature even when it is cold. On the NCR trail, even with the temperature being just at 20F, the stream was running with the sound of the water running over the rocks being just audible. The annual trees are bare and seeing the light of the sun rise and shine through the trees is beautiful. The animals are out early in the morning and a runner or group of runners can see squirrel, rabbits, deer, and others. Quiet on the trail brings its own beauty. The warmth also comes from the sharing of values, the seeking of excellence, the attainment of goals—the number of miles, the speed, etc. Just doing. Most of the celebration described here may be linked to what some consider to be “God-given” talents or gifts from God including fitness, health, and speed. But the celebrations of nature, silence, the noises of nature, trees, etc., could be just as much pagan celebrations and reasons for a spiritual warmth as Christian tradition or any other religion.
Fifth, drawing warmth out of the cold can reflect what happens when we bake and share the still warm baked goods. The oven warms the home. The food warms the body. The sharing of food (specific to Chanukah like latkes) or otherwise, warms the soul.
Sixth, it could mean coming together over wine or anything else in this time of cold and dark. Just coming together with a common bond wanting to enjoy and share.
I’m sure if I spent the time, I could think of other things that drawing warmth out of the cold represents at this time of year. In some cases a physical warmth. In some cases a spiritual warmth. In all cases, things that make people feel safe and secure and bind them together into a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts—no matter what the world view, motivation, or tradition that results in being bound together.