It is the season of illumination. Photo by Lena Orwig on UnsplashIn every town, large and small, on land and on sea, on foot or by car, through historic houses, gardens and even battlefields, you can experience a candlelight or electric light tour sure to get you in the Christmas Spirit. If the tour is by purchased ticket, they sell out weeks in advance. If it is open to the public, like our town’s Holiday Flotilla along the inland waterway, you must set out hours in advance in order to navigate traffic, parking and jostling crowds to claim a vantage point. As one advertisement for the Flotilla read, “80,000 people can’t be wrong!”

What feeling, or emotion is everyone seeking to experience through these hugely popular events? I believe the answer lies back in time and in our communal humanity. Photo by Davidson Luna on UnsplashThe appeal of light in darkness is as great with modern Peoples as it was with our Neolithic ancestors who celebrated the Winter Solstice. With the onset of winter, with it’s shorter days and longer nights, we are drawn to the light.

Ancient Peoples may not have understood the science behind the Solstice but they understood that all life depended upon the light of the sun. Taking nothing for granted and assuming nothing as certain, they paid homage to the sun and beseeched its return with rituals and celebrations. Naturally, those rituals revolved around the light of the fire rlm4wq96h_0-chuttersnapwhich symbolized the sun and its life-giving energy. Eventually, Christianity superimposed their Christmas celebrations onto those familiar ones of the Winter Solstice incorporating many pagan rituals of illumination which we still recognize today.

In essence, nothing has really changed except for the multitudinous number of ways we humans can now create light. But the appeal and the sense of well-being light brings us, as we draw near to it, contemplate it, or surround ourselves with it, remains the same. As Moderns we may understand the astrological science behind the Solstice and we may not fear a never-ending winter, but we still feel winter’s cold, especially in a hostile and angry world such as the one in which we now live. Now more than ever we need the warmth and good cheer of colored lights, candles gleaming, and a roaring fire on many a dark night.candle-light

Dear Readers, the Winter Solstice occurs on December 21st for us here in the Northern Hemisphere. On that day be sure to raise your glass and say a word of good cheer for the return of the sun!


Steinbach Smoking Men From Germany

For me, the Christmas Season begins with the re-emergence of my Steinbach Smoking Men. Out comes “The Real Bavarian,” “The Mushroom Man,” “The Bunny Rancher,” and all the rest. Each adorable folk character is an incense burner. Some are also music boxes playing German folk tunes. img_0225Their bodies come apart in the middle where you place a cone of incense, light it, put them back together, and then watch the smoke spiral up out of their open mouths.img_0243

For thousands of years the burning of incense has been used in religious rituals. The rising smoke is symbolic of offerings and prayers rising up to Heaven. At Christmas time we are reminded of the “three wise men” or Magi, img_0242who brought precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh from the Far East. Frankincense and myrrh are both aromatic resins used to make incense and perfumes. They were costly exotic commodities that flowed along trade routes for centuries out of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

But for as many years, incense has been an important part of pagan rituals. It was burned in sacrifices, and used to purify the home and drive out evil spirits, as well as to draw in good luck and good fortune. Long before Christmas, ancient Peoples celebrated the Winter Solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year. rlm4wq96h_0-chuttersnap

Because the Solstice marks the meteorological turning point of that trend, numerous rituals of fire and light became associated with what must have seemed a magical time of the year to ancient agrarian cultures. As most of us know, these pagan rituals eventually merged with many Christian Christmas traditions.candle-light

Christian and Germanic customs together with superstition made people believe that the evil spirits of the “Raunaechte” (longest nights of the year) could be driven away by noise and light. Once the devils and evil spirits had left the house fine incense was burnt to bless hearth and home. Written in chalk over the front door would be the letters C+M+B believed to be a magic spell that would keep evil away throughout the coming year. The letters stood for: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, traditionally the three names given to the Magi.

As medieval piety grew in Germany in the 1600’s, folk artists created new forms to burn incense that were religiously acceptable. In particular, toy makers in the Erzgebirge region, (the Ore Mountains), began to carve wooden folk characters that were also incense burners and thus the “smoking men” were born.

The Steinbach family has been making German folk art for 5 generations. They proudly manufacture these “smokers” in charming detail. Few stores in the U.S. import them but if you visit one of the many European Christmas markets this time of year, you will have many to choose from!

Dear readers, do you have an event or ritual that marks the beginning of the Christmas season for you? Would you care to share it with us?