Festival of Light

EB and I visited Manhattan seventeen Decembers ago as part of her tour of the East Coast academies where she was considering studying for her philosophiae doctor degree.  You’d think when we were looking for fun, it being near Christmas and all, we might have laced up some skates and headed over to Rockefeller Center, but this dog don’t skate.  Instead, we went to a Solstice Circle at an urban shaman’s house. 

Well, technically we went to my cousin Donna Henes‘s loft in “Exotic Brooklyn” (as she calls it).  I don’t know if Donna’s the only urban shaman out there, but I’ve never met another. And she was once dubbed the Unofficial Commissioner of Public Spirit of New York City by The New Yorker, so there’s that.

For as long as I can remember, Donna has held private ritual gatherings in her home (and public ones in communities of all sizes around the world) designed to remind us that, even if we live in a big city and forget look up to see the stars and the moon and the cosmos and stuff like that, there are still forces around and above us that are meaningful guides to our lives.  When it comes to changes in seasons, Donna’s my go-to gal… heck, she used to write a column called “Celestially Auspicious Occasions,” and even penned a book of the same name.

Besides me and EB, there were probably about a dozen other people there that night.  I’d love to write about the wacky cast of characters, but come on, it’s been 17 years – I can’t remember a single thing about a single one of them.  However,  I do distinctly recall two of the myriad tiny little items that Donna passed around for each of us to keep.  One was a little Mexican jumping bean, to remind us of the energy that moves beneath the earth during these darkest months, even if we can’t see it.  The other was a porcupine quill, the symbolism of which escapes me, but it was totally cool.  I think I still have them in my mid-90’s medicine pouch.

The big takeaway from that Solstice Circle, for me at least, was this idea that winter is when a really important part of growth in nature is happening, even if we can’t see it – it’s that energy that’s inside the seed, buried under the ground, the stuff that’s moving around and shaping itself and getting ready to burst out in a couple of months.  This time of the year, this darkest part, this darkest night, is an essential part of everything. And, so this line of thinking follows, so too are those periods of darkness in our lives.  That’s the sort of idea that sticks with you when you’re spinning through your Saturn Return and are soaking in lots of big life lessons.

A few weeks ago, when I started noticing holiday lights popping up on my neighbours’ homes, I remembered something else from that Solstice Circle — how all of the cultures of the world,  as far back as recorded history can tell, have used light at this time of year to make the invisible energy visible.  It’s only logical that our festivals of light — Chanukah, Diwali, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and the like — are all connected to ancient pagan customs.

If you’re in Vancouver and want to get a BIG blast of light during this season, you absolutely must visit the Festival of Lights at Van Dusen Gardens.  I went last week, remembering having enjoyed it a couple years ago, but forgetting how spectacular it really is.  Imagine 1.4-million LED lights spread over 12-13 acres.  You might see a scene like this:

Or, if you’ve had a bit too much eggnog, it might look a little like this:

We brought our own hot chocolate with us in thermoses and walked around, taking in all the sights and sounds – there’s music playing, both piped in and live.  I even saw my old choir group singing a few standards (not a highlight, alas).

The best part, by far, is the choreographed light show that happens every half hour – there are two shows, one with good ol’ fashioned traditional Christmas songs and the other with a bit more contemporary feel (I read somewhere it’s from “Glee”).  All I can say is it’s awesome.  I walked away feeling all lit up inside. You should go.

As I type, the candles on my menorah are burning brightly on the table in front of me, my fireplace is glowing, and there is light and love in my heart.  I wish the same for all of you on this darkest night of the year.  Merry Solstice, one and all.

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