The Light Returns

By: Sheniz Janmohamed // 12.25.2020

This time of year, we settle in to darker evenings and colder mornings. Perhaps we reach for an extra cup of coffee in the morning, or an extra layer before heading out for a brisk winter walk. Winter may be associated with darkness, but the indomitable human spirit shines through. In many traditions and cultures, it is a time to celebrate the warmth and hope of light.  Whether it’s admiring the strings of coloured lights adorning houses and evergreens, or cozying up next to a fire while the snow falls, we’ve all experienced the joy light brings to us in the winter.

The diversity of York Region gives way for numerous celebrations to honour light just outside our doorstep.

Diwali, the five day Hindu Festival of Lights, marks the triumph of good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and light over darkness. Celebrants partake in mithai (sweetmeats),  light diyas (oil lamps), set off firecrackers, and decorate their homes with intricate rangoli, patterns made from coloured sand. They also offer prayers to the Goddess Lakshmi, who represents prosperity and wealth. Diwali is also celebrated by Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists.

Jews celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, honouring the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the miraculous oil that kept lamps alight for 8 days instead of one. Families gather to partake in delicious treats including crispy latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (jelly donuts). Younger family members take turns to spin the driedel, a four-sided spinning top. Each night, a candle is lit on a candelabra—a menorah—until the 8th day, when the lightning ceremony is complete. Menorahs line window sills to bring hope to those walking out in the darkness.

Ismaili Muslims celebrate Khushiali, the birthday of their spiritual leader, The Aga Khan, with music, reflection, prayer and family feasts, including the application of henna, and drink cups of frothy rose sherbet. Shab-i-Arus, the death anniversary of Sufi poet and sheikh, Rumi, is known as “The Wedding Night”, when Rumi reunited with his Beloved, God. Whirling dervishes spin in celebration of this night and prayers are observed.

The Winter Solstice on December 21st marks the longest and darkest night of the year, after which the light returns. In the Persian tradition, Yalda Night is celebrated, where observing Persians gather with family and friends to read the poetry of Hafez, partake in a feast of fruits and nuts, including pomegranate and watermelon. Yalda refers to the birth of Mitra, the goddess of light.

And of course, there’s Christmas, which honours the birth of Jesus Christ, a light upon the world. Evergreens are adorned with twinkling lights and topped with stars or angels. Gifts are exchanged, families gather for traditional feasts, and attend Midnight Mass. It was a star that brought the three wise men to Bethlehem—another example of light leading the way.

Celebrations of light continue throughout the winter season, including the the Chinese Festival of Lights in February. Also known as the Chinese Lantern Festival, it takes place on the 15th of the Chinese Lunar calendar, and honours the final day of Chinese New Year’s celebrations. Celebrants light paper lanterns, observe folk dances including the famed Lion Dance, and enjoy tangyuan, a delectable sticky rice flour dumpling stuffed with a variety of fillings.

While many of us will not be able to celebrate light in the ways we’re used to, perhaps what each of these festivals symbolize—the triumph of light over darkness—is one we need now more than ever.

How will you celebrate the return of light?