“This little light of mine,” I sang at the top of my lungs in children’s Sunday school, “I’m gonna let it shine!” The room full of preschoolers held up their pointer fingers as if they were reenacting a candlelight vigil.
“Hide it under a bushel?” we sang as we cupped a hand over our little lights. “NO!” would be the thunderous response, “I’m going to let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!”
I heard a lot about light growing up. I was taught God was light and that Jesus was the light to the world. Light embodied goodness, the divine, and power. “The light is more powerful than darkness,” the senior pastor liked to say. “When you flip a light switch, the darkness vanishes.” It didn’t come slinking back for another round after it’d put some mixed veggies from the freezer on its eye. Light prevailed, instantly. Darkness didn’t even stand a chance. Providing that lightbulb keeps working, you’ll be darkness-free.
Electricity was a common working metaphor for light, but I think it played a part in us missing why the metaphor for light would have been meaningful to the original writers and readers of the bible. They didn’t have electricity. They couldn’t just flip a switch. Light was important because they knew what darkness truly was.
Sometimes there isn’t a light switch to banish darkness with a single command. Sometimes there is no light. Sometimes things are just dark. And darkness can be terrifying.
As a child, I was afraid of the dark. I’d sit in bed, 101 Dalmatians comforter pulled all the way up to my wide eyes, quietly chanting: “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave this room.” Other children worried about the monsters under their beds; I attempted nightly exorcisms because I believed demons were literally lurking in the shadows. Demons fed on fear, I’d been told, and fear was something I was in no scarce supply of once the lights went off.
While hiding under my comforter, I’d glance at my Jesus-shaped nightlight, hoping for a little glow of comfort. Sometimes it helped. Sometimes it didn’t. “In the name of Jesus Christ,” I’d whisper again, just to be sure I was alone, hoping I was now safe.
Despite being the cause of my fear of the night, the flavor of Christianity that I was raised in it didn’t provide me with the vocabulary to talk about the chill and fear that can go hand-in-hand with darkness. It didn’t even allow me to fully acknowledge that darkness existed. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
I wish more people would’ve talked about darkness—the things that keep us up at night clinging to our bed with terror or leave us so frozen as a riptide of emotion pulls us out to sea that we can’t even move when the alarm goes off in the morning. The things that nearly drown us. The things that give us scars. And the scars we hide so well. I wish sometimes we would have taken a break from the electricity metaphors to talk about why light is ever even needed and wanted in the first place.
As an adult, I’m still afraid of the dark, only it’s different now. I’m afraid of those things we don’t like to talk about—death, loss and grief, depression, spiritual darkness, self-harm, poverty, and feelings of brokenness. I’m afraid of the kinds of frigid darkness that seeps into your soul.
On the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, I’m finding a new sense of hope. The more I learn about Yule, a holiday I was actively warned against because paganism was a dirty word, the more I feel like I’m finally gaining the vocabulary I’ve needed for so long. I’ve needed to be able to talk about darkness, to have the ability to admit its existence and celebrate how many dark winter days I’ve already made my way through. Every Yule I’m reminded of a line from my favorite Doctor Who Christmas special: “On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, ‘Well done. Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.’ Back on Earth we call this Christmas or the winter solstice.”
Even though it’s been celebrated for longer than Christmas, I feel as if Yule is my private day. It’s my new nightlight, offering a comforting glow. I hang twinkling lights to light up the darkness. Eat an orange, traditional Yule food symbolizing the sun. And take a moment to appreciate the holly, a plant pagans traditionally decorated with because of its green leaves and bright red berries show off that it is alive and well even in the dead of winter when all the other plants look like they’ve died. The longest night of the year is when I say to myself, “Well done. Well done, Kelsey. You’re halfway out of the dark.”
I’ve spent my entire life living in one brand or another of suburbia. I’ve never lived in a house without electricity or on a street that didn’t have street lamps and front porch lights to light the way home. Growing up, the adults didn’t talk about darkness. If anything, they talked about light pollution.
I remember the first time I ever really experienced physical darkness. We were staying at my great-grandparents’ house in Eastern Washington, where we spent time most every summer when I was very young. I was maybe first grade. And Mom and Dad had said I could stay up to see the stars. It was summertime, so this meant staying up much later than my usual bedtime.
“Is it time? Is it time?” I asked my parents. Finally, they said it was dark enough. We walked out of my grandparents’ lodge into the darkness and warmth of a summer night in the Methow Valley. And it felt like I’d just walked onto another planet. The entire sky was lit up with stars, just like in the movies. It made me feel dizzy, so I threw myself on the cool grass. “I feel like I’m going to fall off the Earth!” I exclaimed more to the dizzying universe shining above me than to my parents.
The stars meant something different when there wasn’t a streetlight to be seen for miles. Light meant something different in the middle of a world without light pollution. Light means somethings different when you’re in the dark.
That’s what Yule has become to me. It’s a chance to acknowledge that I’m in the dark. It’s a chance to take in the magic of the stars and candles and people that add light in my life. It’s a chance to make my own light. It’s a chance to appreciate how far I’ve already come, how much cold and darkness I’ve survived. And it’s a chance to celebrate that the light will eventually return. Spring will come. The darkness won’t last forever.
Well done. Well done, everyone. It’s Yule. We’re halfway out of the dark.