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


[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.

I’m tired of being a Christian


I’m tired. I’m tired of being a Christian. People say it’s only a term, only a word but that word feels like the lead apron at the dentist’s office. It’s pushing down on me from all sides, clipped tightly around my neck. It carries the weight of the hearts that have been wounded and the spirits that have been broken in the name of Christianity.

It carries the weight of teenagers who have been kicked out of their homes — gay teens and unwed mothers. It carries the weight of women who have been told to submit to their abusive husbands. It carries the weight of women who question their value, their worth, because they were raped or had sex with someone they loved before they were married. It carries the weight of so many tears that have been shed after someone was verbally accosted by a Christian. It carries the weight of scars and wounds that run so deeply they’ve latched onto people’s identities and sense of self-worth.

And I’m tired. I’m tired of being a Christian. This isn’t irritation or angst; it’s exhaustion.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means I have to believe that I have a monopoly on ethical living or spiritual truths. If my personal creed needs to be forced on or applied to anyone other than myself, than this isn’t for me. I’m tired of the policing in the name of righteousness, which really just starts sounding a lot like I’m-more-right-than-you-ness. If enforced, unasked for “accountability” is the rule, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means I have to be certain. I want to be comfortable with “I don’t know.” I want to relax into it. To deeply breathe it in and out like the fresh, salty, restorative ocean air. I want to welcome my doubts, to open the door when they knock, rather than trying to hide them out of sight. If I have to know for sure or debate every little theological point until I can present a list of tenets worth defending until death (be it mine or my opponent’s), then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means spouting theological bumper stickers when life is crumbling, cracking all around like a house under demolition. If saying “Life is really shitty now” would be inappropriate for a Christian or somehow unfaithful or if it’d be expected that I add in a trite little “But God will work it all together for good!” at the end to ease the discomfort of my listeners and to showcase my faith in redemption, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means that it would not only bring dishonor to the name of God but that it would also be a sin if I were to stand in front of a crowd on Sunday morning and proclaim my love of God. My teaching would bring shame. My praises would be sin. If being a woman is so shameful that my words of homage would bring scandal and humiliation, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means that referring to God as Mother is heresy. A God who mothers; a God who kicks down the door to the Theological Boys’ Locker Room; a God who understands and welcomes me. If insinuating that maybe the Creator of the Universe is a little like me, a woman, is sacrilege, then you can let me off at the next stop. I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means damning love to Hell. I want the outgrowth of my faith to be love not protesting someone else’s family. I want to encourage, support, and defend romantic and familiar love. If I’m expected to picket and condemn loving, happy families, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means spiritual practices are strict and ridged. If writing instead of going to church doesn’t count; if reading poetry or coloring in the morning instead of reading the bible isn’t good enough; if praying with color, scissors and glue, and quiet, overwhelming feelings when there are no words doesn’t count as real prayer; if the fact that watching a sunset fills me with more peace and awe than reciting liturgy isn’t religious enough, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means saying that every fiber of my being is wretched, tainted, depraved. At the beginning of the world God looked at her creation and declared it good. And I’m part of that creation. There’s fire and magic in my personhood; there’s a holy hellion in my heart; there’s a wild mystic in my soul. If believing there are sparks of the divine in me and every person I come in contact with is heretical, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

I’m tired of being a Christian if it means silencing those who have been hurt by the church. If we’re just expected to read the bible every day despite the panic attacks; if we’re just expected to go to church every Sunday despite the scars; if we’re just expected to keep our mouths closed because our church experiences were traumatic and less-than-stellar, then I’m tired of being a Christian.

It might only be a word but it carries the weight of so much pain and sorrow. But somehow, despite it all, I still find myself clinging to Christ. As a child sitting in children’s Sunday school he seemed to say: “It’s okay, you’re welcome here. Come sit down right here next to me.” And now God calls again, she calls, Mother calls, welcoming me to sit down next to her. And I do. But I’m worn out. I’m exhausted. I’m tired.