Festivals of light

31 Oct 2013

Candles by Luca Bruno on Flickr

This article looks at a number of festivals worldwide that use light and fire. But first we explore what light can mean to humans: a way to brighten up dark wintry days, celebrate rebirth and renewal or symbolise the victory of good over evil.

As a discussion starter, you could show this film clip to your students with the sound turned off. Can they guess which country is featured?

The Shetland festival of Up Helly Aa was created relatively recently, but it’s a great way of lighting up the darkness of the far north of the UK as well as celebrating the islanders’ cultural heritage.

Winter solstice

The winter solstice occurs on the shortest day, when the sun at noon is at its lowest point above the horizon. After this day the sun starts to climb higher again – the solstice is the mid-point of winter. This is especially noticeable at higher latitudes where the angle of the sun is lower. In the Northern Hemisphere the winter solstice occurs around the 21-22 December, and in the Southern Hemisphere it occurs around the 20-21 June.

Before light at the flick of a switch, before supermarkets and late night shopping, this time of year was pretty dark and grim. But the wine and beer you made earlier in the year would be ready for drinking, and you may as well kill your cattle as you’ll have no food left for them during the winter. That sounds like a good excuse for a feast. Bring on some fire to warm things up and you have the perfect recipe for a party! Add to that a desire to show your appreciation (or humble yourself) to the God (or the Sun) who controls the seasons and you’ll end up with a serious light or fire festival.

The winter solstice marks a turning point in the year – you’ve reached the year’s darkest day, and it can only get lighter. As the sunlight comes back, so things come to life again, so as well as lighting the darkness with your festival you are heralding the rebirth of another year.

Light vs Dark = Good vs Evil

The sun is the basis for life on planet Earth. Shining a light helps us see more clearly. The act of switching on a lamp, igniting a fire or lighting a candle banishes darkness into the corners. It’s easy to see how light and fire have come to symbolise the triumph of good over evil, and in many religions light is a metaphor for God.

There are many sayings and quotations that explore this aspect of light. Try a few of these on your students – how do they interpret them; can they come up with more?

“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” The Bible (Genesis 1:3)

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Jesus (Bible, John 8:12)

“Allah is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth.” The Qu’ran (Surah Noor – Verse 35)

“Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” The Buddha 

“How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” William Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice)

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton

“Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” Chinese proverb and source of the Amnesty International symbol 

“To light a candle is to cast a shadow.” Ursula K Le Guin 

“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross 

“Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you.” Maori Proverb

Festivals (and spin-offs!) to explore, in date order

7 January: Orthodox Christmas – Christians of the eastern and oriental Orthodox traditions, and in Egypt, Ethiopia and Eritrea celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar, so 13 days later than other Christians. Further details on the BBC website, which also has some great photos of Christmas in the Orthodox world.

21 March: Nowruz – Originally from the Zoroastrian religion (which orginated in Persia, now Iran), this festival involves burning bonfires and spring cleaning to mark the start of spring. Despite not being strictly a Muslim festival it is celebrated as New Year in Iran and right across many Islamic countries in central Asia. BBC News has some pictures of Nowruz celebrations.

Nacreous clouds above Rothera base by Jade Berman - click to view on flickr.com
Nacreous clouds above Antarctic base

21 June: Midwinter in Antarctica – (Perhaps not a light/fire festival, but interesting nonetheless.) For many scientists on bases in Antarctica, Christmas falls during a busy time: there is constant daylight to do your research in, and it may well be the only time the supply ships can visit and get unloaded. By the time they get to Midwinter in June, however, the scientists are probably thoroughly fed up of the dark. Traditionally they celebrate winter’s halfway point with at least a day off, a slap up meal and by making a present for another colleague on the base. Find out more in this winter diary of a British Antarctic scientist (PDF) and on the Australian Government’s Classroom Antarctica website.

21-24 June: Inti Raymi – Falling on the Southern Hemisphere’s winter solstice, this is a festival honouring the sun celebrated by pre-conquest Andean cultures. Banned by the Spanish, the festival was brought back during the 1940s and now the largest celebration occurs in the town of Cusco, Peru. Further details on the Discover Peru website; also video clips from different Andean countries on the Classzone Inti Raymi page.

June-July: Yulefest – In Australia’s Blue Mountains (about 100 km west of Sydney) a tradition has developed (probably to encourage tourism) of having Christmassy celebrations during June and July. Similar touristy traditions exist in other parts of Australia and in New Zealand. Further details on Tourism Australia’s Yulefest page.

October: Thadingyut – Three-day festival celebrated in Burma around the time of the full moon to mark the end of Buddhist lent. There are some pictures on National Geographic.

Early to Mid November: Diwali – Hindu festival of lights; also celebrated by Jains and Sikhs. The lights celebrate the triumph of good over evil and light the way for Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity. Further details on our Diwali calendar page.

Yi Peng festival in San Sai, Chiang Mai by Takeaway@Wikimedia.org - click to view on flickr.com
Yi Peng festival in Thailand

Late November: Loi Krathong and Yi Peng – Celebrated in Thailand, Burma and Laos. During Loi Krathong, little rafts with flowers, food and coins, lit by candles, are floated on the river as offerings. During Yi Peng, hundreds of lit lanterns are simultaneously released into the sky. You can find out more, and see pictures of these festivals on Wikipedia and on the Little Adrift blog.

Late November / Early December: Hannukah – Jewish festival of lights, celebrating the miracle of the menorah in the re-dedicated temple of Jerusalem, which stayed lit for eight days. Further details on our Hanukkah calendar page.

13 December: St Lucia’s Day – Mainly associated with Sweden, but also celebrated in many other Nordic and European countries. A young woman is elected to represent Saint Lucia; she wears a crown of candles and leads a procession of white-robed women, singing traditional songs and each holding a candle. Saint Lucia was an Italian martyr, but the name is also similar to Lussi, a female demon or witch who in pre-Christian times was thought to ride through the air during the night of… 13 December! Further details on the Sweden.se Lucia web page.

25 December: Christmas Day – Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Candles and twinkly lights are a Christmas tradition, perhaps recalling pre-Christian midwinder festivals, but also linking with the star that the Magi followed to find the infant Jesus. Read more on our Christmas Day calendar page, and our Festive inspiration article.

Have we missed out any important festivals of light? Let us know in the comments box below.

The photo at the top of the page is Candles by Luca Bruno on Flick.com and used under a Creative Commons licence.

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