It’s a time of light within a season of darkness
It might be the middle of the darkest time of year, but there are a lot of lights going on in religious celebrations this weekend. On Saturday, we celebrate the feast of St. Lucy; this weekend is also the Third Sunday of Advent, when we will light the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath; and Tuesday evening (Dec. 16) begins the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, known as the “Festival of Lights.”
You don’t need to be Italian, Swedish or Norwegian to know about the tradition of the eldest daughter in a family dressing up in a white dress with a red sash and a crown of candles on her head. In this attire, she will bring sweet breads or cinnamon rolls to her family. St. Lucy’s feast used to fall on the winter solstice, before the reform of the calendar in the 16th century.
Lucy was martyred under the Roman emperor Diocletian in the early fourth century. Her name is similar to the Latin word for “light” — lux — and so candles are associated with her. Since tradition says that she was blinded by her tormentors (only to have her sight miraculously restored), she is shown with candles and bread (representing her eyes.) In Sweden, a girl representing Lucy might be accompanied by “star boys” (stjärngossar) who carry stars on long poles.
The Advent wreaths now in our churches have roots in the cart wheels of northern European countries of several centuries past. In those harsh northern climates, the days of winter were dangerous times. Nothing grew; the days were short and bitter cold. People feared that winter would never end and the sun might never return from its sojourn south on the horizon. So farmers took the wheels off their now-useless farm carts, decorated them with branches, ribbons and candles to symbolize the sun and the longed-for growing season and hung their wheels in their houses, hoping to somehow bring about the return of the sun.
By the 16th century, Lutherans had adopted this older pagan custom and filled it with Christian symbolism. Symbolism has always been important in Christian life. In explaining the symbolism of the Advent wreath — Adventskrantz in German — the circle and the evergreens serves to remind of God’s enduring love.
A final element of the Advent wreath is its candles. There are four, representing the four Sundays of Advent. They also represent the four millennia of creation before Christ’s coming to earth — the time of “the people who walked in darkness (who) have seen a great light” (Is 9:1), referred to by Matthew at the start of Jesus’ ministry (Mt 4:15-16). At the time the Advent wreath was first being developed, many in the Christian world believed that the earth had been created in 4004 B.C. (In 1650, James Usher, archbishop of Armagh used scriptural references to calculate that Adam was created on Oct. 23, 4004 B.C.)
The rose colored (or pink) candle on the Advent wreath represents “joy.” The third Sunday of Advent is known as “Gaudete Sunday” (from the Latin word for “rejoice”). “Rejoice” is the first word in the Introit of that Sunday. (The Introit is the words of a psalm that the priest says as he approaches the altar at the start of Mass.) In this case, the Introit begins: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near” (Phil 4:4-5).
Our Jewish brothers and sisters mark a festival at this time of year that also involves candles, but they use eight main candles, twice the number in our Advent wreathes. Called the “Feast of Lights” and the “Feast of Dedication,” we know this as Hanukkah (Chanukkah).
The feast dates back to 164 B.C. and was started under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus. In those days, the Temple in Jerusalem had been desecrated under the orders of the Greek-Seleucid king, Antiochus IV. Antiochus had dedicated the Temple to the Greek god Zeus.
The Jews, under Judas, revolted and their victory led to the restoration of the Temple. As the Jews set about to rededicate the Temple, they could find only enough holy oil to last for one day. However, that small amount of oil burned for the entire eight days it took to rededicate the Temple and prepare new holy oil. It was considered an act of God.
Since then, Jews have celebrated an eight-day-long feast on the 25th of the month of Kislev, which falls during our modern calendar in late November or early December. This year, Hanukkah begins after sunset on Dec. 16.
In Jewish houses, the first candle of an eight-branched candelabrum (chanukkiah) will be lit on Dec. 16. One more candle will be lighted each evening after that for the eight days. Some people might think the eight-branched candelabrum is a menorah. Technically, it is; however, the more common Sabbath menorah has seven-branches. Each menorah also has a smaller central candle — known as the servant, or shamus, candle — which is used to light the main candles.
While the candle-lighting is the central part of the Hanukkah celebration, other traditions have developed for the feast. These include the cooking of potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly-filled donuts (sufganiyot). Both treats are fried in hot oil, which is a reminder of the oil in the Temple and of how the Lord God worked a miracle of light for his people.
Sources: catholicmissionaryfamily.com; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Judaism 101 at jewfaq.com; judaism.about.com; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Why Do Catholics Do That?”; and catholic.org.