Serra Root illuminates the Hawley Meetinghouse (Photos on this post and the next Courtesy of Lark Thwing)
Colonial Williamsburg stages a Grand Illumination early each December. This weekend-long celebration includes bonfires, fireworks, and candlelit dinners. Visitors amble along the streets of the town, sipping mulled cider and enjoying the gift of light in this season of growing darkness.
Four years ago, the historical society in my small western-Massachusetts hamlet inaugurated its own Illumination tradition. On a Sunday evening in December, members and friends of the Sons and Daughters of Hawley gather in the Hawley Meetinghouse, the former East Hawley Church.
This Little Illumination doesn’t pack the punch of the one at Colonial Williamsburg, where the weekend draws the season’s largest crowds. This year on December 7 a whopping 12 people showed up at the old church in Hawley. The Meetinghouse has no heat so activities were necessarily brief.
Those gathered decorated an outdoor tree with bird treats. They lit the church’s elderly chandelier with lamp oil. They placed battery-operated candles in each window. They sipped a bit of warm cider, hot chocolate, or wine. They sang a few carols (a cappella since no one wanted to lay fingers on the frigid piano keys). They then swiftly departed for home.
Nevertheless, the two Illuminations—northern and southern, Little and Grand—have a lot in common. They both warm the heart if not the body. They both give their participants the feeling of living in the past, if only fleetingly. Standing in the Meetinghouse as it grew dark outside, enjoying the glimmering lights, we Illuminators felt as though we had been transported by magic into another era.
Above all, both Illuminations celebrate light.
Light is meaningful on a number of levels at this time of year. As we learned last week when many of us in New England lost our electricity, light is perhaps most highly valued when we don’t have it. In our complicated homes, light is synonymous with power—the literal power to talk on our electric telephones, type on our electric keyboards, cook on our increasingly (alas!) electric stoves.
Illumination and light are also symbols. Illumination was the term used in the Middle Ages for the creation of books that were transcribed and decorated, then passed on to posterity, spreading knowledge. Illumination also means understanding, figurative light that shines on some idea.
Light can stand for thought (the hackneyed light bulb that shouts “idea” in cartoons). It can stand for deity (the burning bush of God in the Old Testament). Above all, light stands for hope.
Christmas falls at this time of year not because Jesus was necessarily born in late December but because he is viewed as a symbol of hope, of light in the darkness. The December festivals of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa also focus on light, burning candles that celebrate a variety of positive attributes but hope above all.
Light is a central theme of the musical Big River, which won several Tony Awards when it debuted on Broadway in 1985. Big River is an adaptation of what may be the most American of novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Young Huck’s signature song in the show, “Waiting for the Light to Shine,” sums up much of his character just as Mark Twain’s novel summed up much of the American character. It is at once cynical and hopeful, kinetic and focused, pragmatic and idealistic.
“I have lived in the darkness for so long,” sings Huck to a country tune written by Roger Miller. “I’m waiting for the light to shine.”
At this time of year, we are all waiting for the light to shine. We find that light whenever we celebrate a holiday, whenever we gather with neighbors to sing or talk or feed the birds, whenever we start a fire and blow on it ever so gently to encourage the flames to rise.
I share my light by cooking; my most frequent holiday gifts are edible. In the posts immediately below this one I’m highlighting a few of the nibbles I’ll be giving out this year. I hope they bring a little light and a little fun to readers. Happy solstice!
To hear my fellow New Englander Jason Brook sing “Waiting for the Light to Shine,” visit this link.
Hawley Illuminators work to stay warm in the old church.