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David Von Drehle: May your days be merry and bright

By David Von Drehle

In East Asia, the ancient festival of the winter solstice is called Dongzhi. Among Persians, it is Shab-e Yalda. Romans had their Saturnalia, the Inca their Inti Raymi. The Hopi celebrate Soyal.

Neolithic Druids of Southern England had such passion for the solstice that they muscled stones weighing upwards of 25 tons each across miles of unbroken ground to the place where they carved and polished them by hand to build Stonehenge. This staggering construction, the work of a thousand years or more, is exquisitely calibrated to the position of the sun on the shortest day of the year.

We find this primal holiday recurring across time, space and cultures because it speaks to the most basic human fears and hopes. Our distant forebears lacked our scientific scaffolding, the latticework of insights and measurements that allow us to understand why the sun seems to drain away in autumn. What a harrowing experience that must have been to the first conscious humans. And what a thrill of hope must have surged through them when warmth and life-sustaining light began to flood back, one day at a time toward spring.

The zero hour between death and life, dark and light, despair and hope, surrender and persistence, has always cried out for commemoration. The terror of the sun’s vanishing against the relief of the light’s return. This contrast is wired into our earliest brains.

And so, when the adherents of an offshoot faith, some 2,500 years after Stonehenge, offered their slain teacher to be a new light for a darkened world, they naturally attached his origin story to the winter solstice. Early Christians appear unconcerned with their savior’s childhood; the Gospel of Mark, generally agreed to be the oldest extant Christian narrative, introduces Jesus as an adult, and the apostle Paul’s many letters never mention Bethlehem: no inn, no lowly manger, no herald angels. When Christians got around to a biography in Matthew and Luke, the authors filled it with solstice imagery: a light in the eastern sky, a new birth of hope.

The lights of Christmas in deep midwinter have always spoken to me. Folklore has it that the first multicolored strands of electrical bulbs were devised by an electrician in my hometown. David Dwight Sturgeon of Denver wanted to cheer up his ailing son, so he dipped a string of lights in paint, one red, one green, one red, one green, until all the glass globes were painted.

That was 1914. By 1920, the Christmas lights of Denver were sufficiently popular to inspire a local newspaper to sponsor an annual competition for the best display. Five years later, according to the Denver Post, someone somewhere (details foggy) pronounced Denver the “Christmas city of the world.”

And so it seemed to my 4-year-old eyes when my family returned to the Denver suburbs after a short stay in the East. We immediately started a family tradition of heading downtown each December. Bundled up in corduroy and scratchy sweaters, my siblings and I peered into the display windows of May D&F, one of the city’s grand department stores, which were filled each season with marvelous mechanical tableaux. From there, we walked to the City and County Building, a vast monstrosity stretching in a semicircle across a full city block.

The lights on the gray stone were overwhelming, perhaps garish to a sophisticated eye but magical to mine. Floodlights of blue, gold, red and green bathed the building and cast a reflected glow onto our faces as we beheld animatronic elves at work not far from the Nativity scene. The infant Jesus was a minor celebrity compared with the life-size reindeer, identified by nameplates. And the biggest star of all needed no introduction beyond his flashing red nose.

On the way home, Dad steered a circuitous route, searching for streets where the houses were especially gaudy. Our own neighborhood’s grand champion was always our last stop. It was a blinking, blazing casino sign of a house, worthy of Clark Griswold, with a floodlit St. Nick emerging from his sleigh on the roof and a bulb-bedazzled snowman waving from the lawn.

Best of all was church on Christmas Eve, when they doused the lights to leave a single candle glowing. That candle lit another. Those candles lit two more. Hand to hand, the flame passed along the pews until everyone held a dancing little flare. The church was now illuminated by a warmer, richer light. Thus our ritual reenacted the solstice, reconnected us with joy, and even in my choking necktie, I felt buoyant afterward as we emerged into the frozen night air and looked up to search for Rudolph’s blinking nose.

The season belongs to every human. And so to all of you sharing another trip around the sun, I wish you light and hope for the year ahead.

David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post.

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