LET THERE BE LIGHT

Candlelight Vigil in Seoul, Korea

As the Winter Solstice approaches, many people are feeling a little low—or a lot.  Fortunately, there are several holidays and celebrations around this time of year to add a little light to your schedule. Here are just a few:

Diwali or Deepawali is a festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains. It is celebrated in mid-October to late November, according to a lunar calendar.

Hanukkah is a Jewish festival of lights celebrated in November or December, according to the Gregorian calendar.

Kwanzaa is a celebration of culture and community celebrated in late December. An important part of the celebration involves lighting the kinara.

Lussevaka or Santa Lucia Day is a celebration of light, community, and the triumph of good over evil. It is primarily celebrated in Sweden, but St Lucia festivals are also held in Croatia, Italy, France, Germany, and Norway on December 13.

Yule is celebrated in many different ways by Pagans and Wiccans. It is the celebration of the Winter Solstice, the return of the sun. This is often symbolically represented by burning a Yule log, signifying the rebirth of the Oak King and waning of the Holly King.

Don’t Be SAD

Daylight Sky Light Therapy by MTS Medical Device

There is a term for those who suffer most when the days grow short: SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).  SAD increases in higher latitudes where the winter days are short. Light therapy, where you arrange a special wide-spectrum light therapy box device at an angle to your face. Using such a device for several hours at the same time every day can be used to treat SAD. It can also help treat those who have depression all year round, improving their overall well-being.

Anger management therapy can sometimes be combined with light therapy.

Scientists have also discovered that light therapy can lower nighttime agitation in Alzheimer’s patients and reduce symptoms in Parkinson’s patients, including sleeping problems and tremors.

Whether sick or healthy, light definitely affects your mood. According to research, one in four people in Alaska suffers from depression – and it’s mainly caused by a lack of sunlight.

Sunshine Cures Everything

Superman may have had a bit too much sunlight.
“No One Can Save Us Now”
by Mojoko and Eric Foenander
Singapore Art Museum

Sunshine can also help with pain control. Research shows that patients whose beds are on a sunny side of a hospital experience less pain than those whose rooms are in the shade. As well as reduced pain, patients in sunny rooms tend to recover sooner, use fewer painkillers, and feel less stressed. One theory is that exposure to sunlight releases serotonin: a feel-good chemical in the brain.

High solar activity has been found to increase fertility rates. Furthermore, light can also give men a boost in the bedroom. Research has shown that higher testosterone is boosted by Vitamin D. The biggest source? The sun. A light box would have the same affect, but is possibly less romantic than a sunny picnic or stroll along the beach.

As far as I can tell, the health benefits of sunlight are all attributed to Vitamin D effects on/in the body.

Fake Light

Aside from the health benefits of light, many practical applications have lead to the creation of light when there is no sun—primarily the benefits of being able to see in the dark! 

Over the centuries, we’ve seen many advances in created light.

Campfires really create a sense of community!
(Thanks to H.R.Joe Photography)
  • Fires, the first source of created light
  • Torches
  • Oil lamps, precursors to candles
  • Candles (beginning around 500 BCE in Rome) 
  • Lanterns
  • Matchsticks
  • Flashlights
  • Fluorescent lights
  • Incandescent lights
  • LED’s 
  • Plasma Lightsabers
Traditional oil lamp for Diwali

Until the 20th century, candles were most common in Northern Europe. In Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, oil lamps predominated.

Besides providing light, candles were used for the purpose of measuring time, usually in hours. The Song Dynasty in China (960-1279) used candle clocks.

Kerzenhur- Candle Clock

A version of a candle clock is often used to mark the countdown of the days leading to Christmas. This is called an Advent candle.

Note: This term is also used for candles that decorate an Advent wreath.

Among the earliest forms of created light, candles have had the greatest staying power into modern times for numerous uses. An estimated 1 billion pounds of wax are used in the candles sold each year in the United States.

FYI: No candle wax has ever been shown to be toxic or harmful to humans.

Advent Wreath
  • Holiday decorations
    • Shaped candles for specific holidays
    • Candles for tree decorations
    • Menorah candles for Hannukah
    • Kinara candles for Kwanzaa
    • Nine candles in a lingonberry wreath for Santa Lucia Day
    • Advent wreath candles (marking the four Sundays leading up to Christmas)
    • Candles for windowsills (to guide the Holy Family in their flight to Egypt) 
Loy Krathongs – Thai Floating Lanterns
  • Lighting paper lanterns
  • Lighting and lifting sky lanterns
  • To produce a romantic mood
  • To make a dinner table more formal 
  • As backup for a power failure
  • To dispel unpleasant household odors
  • To test for drafts
  • Scented candles for pleasure and/or aroma therapy
Very Formal Dining Table

As the days grow shorter and night falls like a rock earlier and earlier, many people light candles around the house, even when they have electric lights, simply because the warm glow is cheerful. Which brings us back to human craving for light!

Cold Light

Gas lights were developed in the 1790s and were in common use in large cities by the middle of the nineteenth century. Streetlamps made the night safer (in wealthy areas) and gas piped into houses allowed (wealthy) homeowners to ignore the setting sun.

Too bright!

The invention of the electric-powered incandescent light bulb was even more effective in making the sun obsolete. Since electric lights have become nearly universal, ideas like a 24 hour workday and cutting sleep to work more have become nearly as universal.

Newborn incubators, refrigeration, pacemakers, surgical lighting, heated houses, underground ventilation, and electric harp string tuning meters are undoubtedly beneficial to human society. However, humans in general have become increasingly sleep-deprived and overworked since the spread of electricity. Heated and lighted houses have also made humans more likely to stay indoors all winter, avoiding direct sunlight. This leads right back to the beginning of this blog – Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Bottom line: Humans need light for a multitude of reasons, and in a multitude of forms.

Massive forest fires can’t stop Oregoners from playing golf. Maybe it’s not giving off enough light.

GREETINGS!

The first known pre-printed Christmas card was published in London in 1843, for Sir Henry Cole to send to family and friends.

We in the U.S. are highly aware of greeting cards at this time of year—both the receiving and the sending. Dunbar and Hill (2003) conducted a study on social networks by studying Christmas card lists. They found that each household receives about 150 Christmas Cards, and sends an average of about 68 cards. Clearly, people are receiving more than they give! (Don’t ask me to explain how those numbers work.) The study did not include cards for Hanukkah, Solstice, Yule, Kwanzaa, and New Years, but all of these together make for a very busy Postal Service throughout December.

Since holiday-specific greeting cards are so widespread in the US at the moment, it’s worth taking a moment to think of how they might feature in your writing. If you’re already sick of holiday cheer, just wait for St. Valentine’s Day to be shoved down your throat!

Motivation Behind Christmas Cards  

According to my reading, Sir Henry Cole (see above) resorted to creating Christmas Cards because he had too many friends to write individual notes. I venture to assert that the time crunch is still a major factor in sending a greeting card rather than a letter. But that leaves open the question of who gets on someone’s card list in the first place. I seem to recall that once upon a time, cards were for people seldom seen—and thus unavailable to greet personally. Today?

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Neighbors
  • Work colleagues
  • Clients
  • Church family
  • Teachers
  • Students
  • Doctors/ nurses
  • Residents of nursing homes or hospitals
  • Active military
  • Members of social groups
  • Those who sent cards last year
  • That one person you don’t really like but gets a card just so you can use up the last of the 12-pack of cards you bought

This increasingly vague list leaves plenty of room for confusion and accidentally hurt feelings. Consider someone who sends a card but doesn’t receive one in return. Consider a child arguing with a parent over whether online cards are a suitable replacement for paper cards. If you really want to jerk some tears, consider an elderly character sending out cards to peers and seeing the list shrink a little more every year.

What Type of Card?

There is a huge variety of cards available, and the type of card sent could reveal as much about a character as the people they send those cards to. Religious ones, humorous ones, nature scenes, musical ones, pop-up ones. The first personalized Christmas card was sent in 1891 by Annie Oakley. She was doing sharp-shooter exhibitions in Scotland and sent cards back to friends and family in the U.S. featuring her picture—wearing tartan!

Should a character send a generic card with vaguely wintry scenes and vague wishes for general well-being? What about a character sending explicitly religious cards to recipients of a different faith or no faith at all? Why would a character choose to make dozens of cards by hand rather than grabbing a box off the drugstore shelf? Some families include newsletters with the card, letting friends and families know what they’ve been doing since last year’s holiday card. Why would a character send newsletters or photo collage cards?

Meaning of Holiday Cards for the Recipient 

When I was growing up, my mother, aunts, etc., knew exactly how many cards they received and how many they sent—sort of like being able to cite how many trick-or-treaters came by on Halloween. Christmas cards were typically displayed on stair banisters, windowsills, archways, mantels, etc. 

Could receiving holiday cards be a bad or unpleasant experience? What about a character receiving a card from someone they dislike? How about siblings or friends who see messages of boasting and rivalry in personalized cards? What might a character think after sending out dozens of cards and receiving none in return? How would someone who hates the entire holiday season react to all those reminders in the mail?

According to anthropologists, the number of holiday cards you receive reflects how many people care about you. That’s the premise of a 2003 study of social network size carried out by evolutionary anthropologists Robin Hill of the University of Durham and Robin Dunbar of Oxford and published in the journal Human Nature.  “In Western societies…the exchange of Christmas cards represents the one time of year when individuals make an effort to contact all those individuals within their social network whose relationships they value.”

Maybe I’m just being defensive, but I refuse to measure my circle of caring family and friends by the handful of seasonal greetings I receive. Just saying.

Holiday Cards are Big Business

Getting a definite count is tricky, depending on the year and what cards are included in the count. For example, one study asserted that 6.5 billion greeting cards are bought each year, at a total cost of more than U.S. $7 billion.  On the other hand, sales of holiday cards in the U.S. dropped from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 1.5 billion in 2011. Christmas Cards account for 61% of seasonal greeting card sales, followed by St. Valentine’s Day at a distant second of 25%.

And that doesn’t even include the USPS revenue! Imagine what a postal worker, especially a letter carrier, thinks about all that extra volume moving around the country. Both of the holidays most frequently celebrated with extra paper and postage happen during some of the most unpleasant weather. Do the holiday bonuses outweigh the extra weight in the satchel?

2019 UNICEF cards

And FYI: only 15% of cards are bought by men. Millions of dollars are raised for charities by Christmas Cards each year. For example, UNICEF launched their charity Christmas card program in 1949. Schools, research institutions, hospitals, food banks, and lots of other community organizations raise funds by selling holiday cards.

Some organizations also send cards to donors to encourage continued support the following year. Does it really count as a holiday greeting if it’s a reminder to send a check?

Well, I seem to have been caught up in a seasonal issue.  But bottom line for writers: what are your character’s attitudes and behaviors regarding holiday greeting cards?  Any phenomenon as ubiquitous as this can contribute to your characters and/or plots.

It’s the 5th night of Hanukkah!