Chanukah, Winter Solstice & Festivals of Light

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According to Wikipedia, Winter Solstice has been a significant time of year across many cultures going back into pre-history. Apparently, the primary axis layout of Stonehenge, a late Neolithic period archaeological site, is aligned on sight with the winter solstice sun.

Our early forebears used astronomical events to guide activities, such as the mating cycle of animals, the sowing of crops and the monitoring of winter reserves of food. Many cultural mythologies and traditions arose around the Winter Solstice.

In ancient Rome, Sol Invictus was adopted under Emperor Aurelian in 246CE and was celebrated on 25 December. It is suggested the Scandinavian and German festival of Yule also originated as a Sun festival.

Solstice marked the symbolic ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’ of the Sun. The seasonal significance of solstice is the point of reversal – the moment when one of Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. The word ‘solstice’ means ‘standing still’.

When we first moved to England, I used to think Solstice was the beginning of winter with the darkness of January and February looming. Yet from the 21st of December in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun ‘s presence in the sky is actually increasing and daylight gets longer.

The Talmud in describing the Creation story, suggests the first human being, Adam, thinking the world would be destroyed during the solstice period, fasted for eight days coinciding with the darkest point of the year.

When he saw the days brightening and daylight becoming longer, he understood with relief that it was just the seasonality of the world. As the light grew, he made an eight-day festival, and the next year again celebrated the occasion. His descendants eventually forgot the origin of the holiday and used it for pagan celebrations.

I think the Talmud is teaching us that each generation experiences times in which we are plunged into darkness, times when the world around us seems to get dimmer, and we are gripped by the terror of those moments in which we cannot foresee whether the darkness will ever again give way to illumination.

Perhaps for this very reason, at this time of year, there are numerous Festivals of Light across the planet. We recently had the Hindu festival of Diwali, this week marks the Jewish Festival of Chanukah, Christmas is only weeks away, there is the African festival of Kwanza and in Japanese Buddhism, the last night of the calendar year is commemorated with temple bonfires and bell ringing, just to name a few.

For Jews, Chanukah is about religious freedom, but it also asks us to re-think our place in the world. The main ritual of the festival is to light a candle each night, to add light to our surroundings, and to celebrate with praise and thanksgiving.

Chanukah, in relation to the story about Adam, invites us to imagine that human beings can affect the world positively. As the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks often wrote about adversity, ‘it is up to us not to accept the world as it is, but to imagine the world as it could be and work toward that goal’.

Chanukah, perhaps like other festivals during this period, allows us to acknowledge the experience of darkness, the uncertainty that each of us faces when light, literally or figuratively, seems to be slipping away.

The Solstice becomes a season in which we search for tiny points of light, reassuring ourselves that any and all small acts of kindness can light up the world again.

Experiences of darkness and light are interwoven within each of us, especially during this global pandemic. But we can be confident that each one of us has the capacity to bring our own unique light into the world, spreading illumination not just for ourselves but for those around us demonstrating that truly #EveryMitzvahMatters.

Wishing you Chanukah Sameach 

Rabbi Jeff Berger and the Mitzvah Day Team