Halfway Out of the Dark: Candles, Christmas, And the Winter Solstice

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[Trigger / Content warning: A deadly shooting, and a scene involving child abuse]

It was 32 degrees that morning as I stood at my regular bus stop next to 7-Eleven. I’ve never done well with cold temperatures, so I pulled out all my winter gear: down vest, black water-proof jacket (a wardrobe staple in the Seattle region), thick socks, winter hat, and gloves.

Right below the bus stop sign there were glass candle holders with pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The weather hadn’t been great that week—lots of wind and rain (it’s Washington, so mostly rain). But the four candles were burning.

There was a balloon on a stick stuck into the ground reading, “I love you.” Another read, “Thinking of you.” There were flowers strewn on the ground. The artificial ones were still standing up smartly, still holding their color. But the bouquets of real flowers hadn’t survived all the rain and had turned into a soggy mess of petals, stems, and tissue paper on the concrete.

I’d brought flowers, too. I’d written a card. I’d made a sign reading that the regular riders of our bus route remembered. That I remembered. But now it was all gone, just a part of the water-logged mess.

But the candles burned on.

I hadn’t known the victims—a seventeen-year-old boy and his father. They’d been sitting at the bus stop around five in the afternoon, right at peak when they charge you an extra 25 cents. They’d just been sitting there at their regular stop. At my regular stop. And someone drove by and shot them right there.

The younger brother was there too, but news report said he wasn’t hit. But that’s not true, not really. He wasn’t hit; he was shattered. His world ended at five o’clock in the afternoon as the rush hour traffic was just beginning to form.

Lives were taken. Lives were shattered. Evil left its mark. Darkness entered our bus stop and our neighborhood.

But the candles burned on.

Candles like that don’t keep burning forever. They have to be lit, and relit. It was morning. It was cold. But someone had already been there to light them. Someone made sure that they burned on. There were puddles of wax around the candles. They had obviously tipped over, spilling hot wax onto the cement. But someone had righted them. Someone had relit them.

The candles burned on during the longest nights of the year.

As a small child I didn’t even know when the Winter Solstice was but I’d been warned against it. I imagined pagans dancing around bonfires, casting spells, and playing with tarot cards as The Satanic Bible peeked out of their back pockets. The Winter Solstice was spiritually scandalous. It was the time when all the dark things crept out from under that dusty, cluttered spot under your bed; all the mischief and mayhem that lurked in the shadows, afraid of the light, beckoned to one another to come out and play.

But now, as an adult, I’m beginning to find a tremendous amount of comfort in the Winter Solstice. It’s a time of darkness but not dark doings. It’s a time for light to shine. It’s a time for the candles to burn on when we need them most.

Every time I stand at my bus stop I’m reminded that somewhere, very nearby, a family is mourning. For them this festive time of year is undoubtedly a time of anguish. Their hearts are grieving, hurting. If the Wise Men showed up at their home, they’d bring myrrh.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

I have two friends whose fathers passed away recently. They’re living in the shadow of death as Jingle Bells pays on the radio; living in the isolated valley of grief and loss.

There were four warm, friendly white-haired women who sat in front of the husband and me at the little church we sometimes visit—I think of them as our Lutheran grandmothers. Despite my religious trauma, these adorable older women have helped their church feel safe. And I found out this Sunday that one of them passed away. Her funeral service will be three days before Christmas, on the longest night of the year.

I had to call 911 last week because of a domestic disturbance across the street. I looked out the window when I heard scared children screaming, “No, Dad! No!” to see an angry man waving a large kitchen knife aggressively as his children jumped into a car that quickly pulled out of the parking lot, driving them to safety. I feel like I haven’t even recovered from the scene, so I know the children haven’t.

So much darkness. So much hurt. And that’s only looking at the small sliver of humanity  I have access to. When I turn on the news or read articles online I’m greeted with more darkness, more bleakness. So much violence. So much pain. So much sorrow. So many people in need of shelter and safety. So many people who are afraid, and rightfully so.

I don’t know how to handle it, this darkness. So much death and grief and brokenness, so much pain. The darkness is so thick that sometimes it makes me feel like I’m chocking. And December, despite all of the holiday lights and super sales, has a way of making that worse.

December is a time of year that can bring with it great joy and also great sadness. It’s like the Great Multiplier. Whatever feelings you’ve been experiencing already are multiplied, accentuated, and accelerated. When you’re already feeling an ache in your chest, tears are already threatening you at gun point, it makes it even worse. So much worse.

One of the most comforting moments in this month for me is on Christmas Eve. Even though I no longer identify with the religious tradition of my childhood, midnight Christmas Eve services still bring comfort and hope. I hold my red pew hymnal and my candle while singing Joy to the World. And in that moment, there’s light.

The candle burns on.

I have a thing about candles. They can be symbolic or spiritual or sentimental or sensual or scented (and I’m sure all sorts of other alliterations I can’t currently think of). They’re a little bit of light in the dark.

This little bit of light doesn’t fix everything. Or anything, for that matter. It doesn’t mean death hasn’t touched our lives; it doesn’t mean that existential crises have come to a close; it doesn’t mean healing has finally been achieved; it doesn’t that we’re feeling all sappy and sentimental every time we hear Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Last Christmas playing over the noise of people shopping. It doesn’t mean things are fixed. It doesn’t even mean things are okay. It doesn’t mean we like the holidays, or any of this.

Candles don’t fix things. They don’t heal things. But they provide just a little bit of light.

To me the light—symbolic and literal—this week of the Winter Solstice and Christmas reminds me that I did it. It reminds me of a line from my favorite Doctor Who Christmas special, a sci-fi retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “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.”

The holidays can be an extremely hard time of year for a lot of people. And if you’re feeling that way, may the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice, remind you that you’re halfway out of the dark.

In a few days the holidays will be over. In a few days we’ll be changing out the calendars. In a few days you take down the holiday wreath, burn the tree, and never be forced to say merry fucking Christmas for an entire year. In a few days the sun will begin to resurface. In just a few days.

Well done. Well done, everyone. We’re halfway out of the dark.


A Sunflower for Gilbert (Or, that Time I went to Hungary)

Flickr CC Rachel Samanyi

Flickr CC Rachel Samanyi

Honestly, I’m not sure we were supposed to be up there in the first place. Or even out of bed for that matter because the school, in order aid in the celibacy of the students, had a strict curfew. But there was something about quietly sneaking through a dark castle with towering ceilings and great windows that felt, to use an Anne word, romantic.

We weren’t kindred spirits to begin with. It’s not that we ever fought, but common ground seemed to be in scarce supply.

I’d only graduated from high school a matter of weeks before. Only spoke English. And was living and traveling on my own for the very first time.

Hermina, on the other hand, had grown up in Serbia, but after attending a university in Hungary had decided to call it home. She was very well traveled and spoke multiple languages fluently.

And we were roommates.

My ex-denomination had a bible college in a tiny rural town in Hungary. During the summer the old Hungarian castle — yes, it was a castle — served as a conference center for pastors and missionaries throughout Europe. And in 2005 Hermina and I found ourselves living together for three and a half months as we volunteered during conference season doing dishes, making beds, working in the coffee shop, and enjoying our one day a week off work.

As an “on fire” Evangelical youth I’d gone to Hungary with the goal of aiding those who were sharing the Gospel. However, what I actually ended up doing was converting someone to the Gospel of Saint Anne of Green Gables, patron saint of romantics and misfits everywhere.

One of the American staff members at the college owned all of the Anne films on VHS and Hermina, to my horror, had never even heard of Anne. So we located an old TV in a finished section of the attic that was used during the day as a classroom for the teachers’ children.

We didn’t have a lot of time for movie watching, so it took us a while to get through the films. But every night that we could, after the Hungarian castle was asleep and the lights were off, we’d tiptoe through lonely rooms that in their previous lives may have held grand balls but now, only a few hours before, hand been bustling with conference guests.

We’d climb several flights of spiral staircases with wrought iron handrails. And then, when we got to the top floor, would open a small door that looked like a closet but was  another set of stairs leading to the attic. Once there, we’d sit on the rug in front of the TV since the furniture in the children’s classroom was all on the small side. Hermina would lay on her stomach, taking in every moment, as I sat there feeling proud of my new convert.

The Canadian films were very foreign to Hermina. And some aspects about the historical context and word usage required a little translating.

“Why does Anne have such a strange last name?” She asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Of Green Gables — What kind of last name is that?”

“‘Of Green Gables’ is more of a title,” I explained. “It’d be like if I called you ‘Hermina of Serbia.'”

But one thing translated just fine: Gilbert Blythe. We may have been different when it came to age, education, and the section of the globe we called home but we both couldn’t help falling in love just a little with that steadfast Canadian. We fell in love with the idea of a romantic someone encouragings us in the pursuit of our dreams rather than standing in the way. The idea of being loved for both our mind and our daydreams. And the idea of being loved because of, not just in spite of, our quirks and faults and even the beauty we couldn’t see (like carrot red hair).

He wasn’t some rugged bad boy tamed by the love of a woman. Or a two-dimensional Prince Charming. Gilbert was the character, the man, who showed us what it meant to be cherished.

I loved watching Hermina react to the story that was by this time very familiar to me. It made it feel new again. She was annoyed with Gilbert when he had the nerve to call Anne carrots and pull her braid (and appropriately shocked and proud when Anne responded by cracking a school slate on his head). And then when Gilbert started to grow up and his admiration and love for Anne became increasingly obvious and endearing, she lamented Anne’s long-held grudge. She’d routinely ask, “Is she ever going to like him?” And I’d just laugh but wouldn’t say a word.

Hungary will always remind me of Anne and Gilbert, not just because I had the chance to share their story with Hermina but because Hungary would’ve suited them so well.

Anne would’ve loved spending a summer in that castle; she would’ve imagined the love affairs that had transpired there, and the ghosts that couldn’t bear to leave. She would’ve loved strolling through the little town past a small Catholic church with an overgrown, forgotten cemetery; the petite cottages that lined the street and were practically overrun with flower gardens; and the bright orange sunsets.

She would’ve loved the summer storms that seemed to roll in out of nowhere, and how the lightning would be so close that during the night it’d light up the entire castle like something out of an old horror film and how the windows with their old locks would sometimes blow open during an especially hard gust. She would’ve loved Budapest: the architecture, the vastness of the city, and the romantic but not-so-blue Danube.

Anne would’ve loved my favorite part of Hungary, too. She would’ve loved the fields of yellow as far as the eye could see, so bright it hurt my eyes. When Hermina and I’d drive in to Budapest I’d point out the window like a little kid who’d just spotted the gates to Disneyland for the first time. Look at that! It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. “Kelsey, they’re just sunflower fields,” Hermina would laugh. But there will never be such a thing as just sunflower fields. And Anne would’ve understood that.

And Gilbert would’ve loved how happy Hungary and the sunflowers made his Anne girl.

Like so many fans of the books and movies I’m heartbroken about Jonathan Crombie’s death (the actor who played Gilbert). But he will always live on in the movies and my memory as the one and only Gilbert Blythe. I’d leave a sunflower at his grave if I could. My memories of sunflowers and Hungary and late nights spent watching Anne finally, slowly, fall for Gilbert are all so closely tied together that no other flower would seem appropriate. But this will have to do, instead.

Wishing you fields of sunflowers, Gilbert.