Christmas has come and gone, and we're all a little bit plumper than we were before. In winter, some of the most important European traditions are related to light - in this issue, Čarna Jovanović looks at some of the stories and beliefs which lie behind these holidays. In some cultures light may mean illumination or eternity, in others it may be connected with victory or survival...

Photo: Claudia Gründer (CC-SA)
A St Lucy celebration in Sweden

Light as a symbol of illumination and the eternal flame of faith

This is what we could say is celebrated at Hanukkah, which may take place any time between late November and late December (this year it was 1-9 December). Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday which commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and is celebrated for eight days and nights. One of the interpretations of this custom is that after the liberation of the temple there was not enough olive oil to be fuel the eternal flame for eight days as was necessary but only for one day. By a miracle, the flame lasted for eight days and by that time the new consecrated oil had been prepared. This is the origin of the principal Hanukkah ritual, which is the lighting of the nine-branched candelabrum called the Menorah. Every night of the holiday one additional light is lit. This ritual has spiritual significance; it represents the constant expansion of the Jewish flame. During the lighting of the Menorah, the family gathers together and the traditional Hanukkah songs are sung. Another tradition connected with Hannukah is a game called dreidel. A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top; each side is printed with a Hebrew letter. These letters are an acronym for the Hebrew words Nes Gadol Haya Sham, "A great miracle happened there", referring to the miracle of the oil that took place in the temple.

Light as a symbol of salvation and gratitude

The Fête des lumières in Lyon takes place every year on the 8th of December. It all started back in 1850 when religious authorities announced a competition to make a statue of the Virgin Mary who, according to popular belief, had saved Lyon several times from plague and cholera in the past two centuries. The statue was made by Fabisch and the date of 8th December was chosen for its inauguration after some delays. The Lyonnais had been eagerly awaiting this event but storms and bad weather almost ruined everything again. The illumination was postponed for the next week but the inhabitants didn't give up. By the end of the evening all windows had been illuminated with the candles and the inhabitants went down to the street with lanterns in their hands. The whole town shone, as well the gilded statue of the Virgin. This also could symbolise the triumph of the light over darkness. Since that day, every 8th December candles appear on the windows and the Lyonnais gather in the streets.

Photo: Gonedelyon (CC-SA)
The Cathédrale St Jean in Lyon

We asked one English girl who spent a year in Lyon how she felt about the festival, and what it meant to her. She remembered feeling "overwhelmed," and continued, "This was because one was inevitably caught up in a seething mass of bodies. Many of the most striking light displays used the façades of the cathedrals and churches. Thus one could never forget the original religious significance of the event held in gratitude to the Virgin Mary. More than any particular event I enjoyed standing on the top of La Croix-Rousse and looking down on the lit-up city like a bird. From here the illuminated Basilica Fourvière could also be seen, itself another token of gratitude to the Virgin Mary."

Light as a symbol of faith, hope, and compassion in the darkness of winter

St Lucy's day is celebrated in Scandinavian countries on the 13th of December, and is especially associated with Sweden. St. Lucy is Sicilian saint, a devout Christian who suffered a martyr's death. The name "Lucy" means light, and her connection with light can also be found in this sentence: "her life and legacy shine as a light of faith, hope, and compassion in the darkness of winter and sin." On the same day in the time of paganism (according to Julian calendar), people celebrated the winter solstice and the rebirth of the sun. The explanation of this holiday can therefore be found in the mixture of Christian beliefs and old pre-Christian Scandinavian beliefs and folklore based on the annual struggle between light and dark. On that day in Sweden, girls are dressed in white, like angels, wearing a wreaths of candles or holding candles and singing Lucy's hymns. This holiday, although it is not an official holiday in Sweden, is very popular today. There are public processions in Swedish cities and there are even regional and national elections of Lucia for that year. Linn from Sweden told us a little bit more about this holiday: "It is common that you go to the Lucia celebrations for your grandmother and grandfather. In school you learn some songs and often have a show for the parents in the evening. The children offer cookies such as gingerbread and saffron buns. (...) Lucia is very important for us Swedes and there is something special about the morning of December 13! My impression of Lucia is that it is rather nice and powerful with all the candles."

Light can have all sorts of different meanings. But what does it mean to you? When I think of light I see candlelight, sparkling reflections of snow, and snowflakes against a starry sky, I can smell the aroma of roasted squash, I can hear the crackling of the fire and squeak of steps in the snow and I feel warm and happy. What about you?

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