As the days grow shorter and there’s a chill in the morning air, the leaves are turning red, orange, yellow, and, in one last fanfare glide to the ground. The harvest is being reaped and extra blankets are pulled out of the closet. It’s a bittersweet time as we say goodbye to the golden days of summer and enter the mouth of winter’s cave. In Mexico dead relatives grow restless as the day of the dead draws near. In Jewish homes the holiest holiday of the year, Yom Kippur, a time of atonement, is observed by reflecting on the past year. In the United States we are preparing to observe Thanksgiving. As it says in John 4:8 God is Love and, as the days grow darker, families around the world prepare to light candles and decorate fragrant green trees with cherished keepsakes and colored bulbs to celebrate the birth of the son of Love.
It’s been a challenging time for many of us- fires, floods, divisive politics, the suffering of already traumatized migrant children, an angry patriarchy and global warming making itself undeniably felt. There is an air of hopelessness in those of us who are even moderately awake. It’s natural for hopelessness to set in during relentlessly hard and uncertain times. But we humans have lived through many, many other times when we couldn’t see a way out of the weeds and have developed strategies to bolster ourselves and carry on, not giving in to hopelessness.
Two tried and true methods developed by humans to help move past hopelessness are; bathing in light and taking an inventory of what there is to be grateful for. These two simple but powerful practices can be found in various forms all around the world for a good reason. They work. They have the ability to lift us up and remind us that, despite it all, life if good. There are numerous examples of how various cultures use either light or gratitude to fortify the weary. Two that come forward in their beauty and poetry at this time of year are Hanukah and Thanksgiving.
Using light to fight hopelessness is something the Jewish people have become particularly adept at. Hanukkah, the festival of light, commemorates the victory of the Maccabees, a Jewish tribe led by a father and his sons, over the Syrian-Greeks in 164 B.C. In an attempt to put an end to Judaism, the powerful Syrian-Greeks desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. After the Jews wrested their land away from the invading forces they set about cleaning and rededicating the Temple. As the legend goes, when the Maccabees went to light the Temple candelabra there was only enough oil to keep it aglow for one night. Miraculously the oil lasted for eight nights. This is why the Jews celebrate eight nights of the miracle of light each year. The Jewish people have lived through many challenging times, times when it was not certain their people and values would even survive. Many tribes throughout history have come and gone but somehow the Jewish tribe continues to thrive to this day. In order for the Jews to survive the mountain of hopelessness they faced throughout the years they developed rituals, such as Hanukah, which tell the story of triumph over unbelievable odds and employ light as a symbol of hope.
Thanksgiving, on the other hand, rather than lighting a candle in the dark, celebrates nature’s abundance in full daylight. Thanksgiving is essentially a harvest festival. Harvest festivals are celebrated throughout the world as a way to express gratitude for the sustenance of this generous Earth that is our home. We work hard to survive and, in our struggle, we can forget that the Earth is our ally providing us with an infinite variety of fruits and vegetables and flowers and grains so that we may thrive. Thanksgiving is a time to gather with friends and family and share this warm sense of gratitude with and for one another, to remember all that we have to be grateful for.
Where I live, in Sonoma, the grapes have been harvested. It has been a good and abundant season. There is a bumper crop of figs on the large Black Mission fig tree in my backyard. They have been harvested and boiled down with sugar and spices to make fig compote. Little bottles of this compote with be gifted to my guests so that they may remember this season of abundance well into the cold winter nights. My art studio will be awash in small overhead lights like pearls across the ceiling. A sea of white candles will light up the tables, which will be set with fresh white tablecloths and covered in red, orange and yellow fruit, leaves and flowers. This is where my family and friends will feast together. We will take a deep breath, tell stories and laugh and remember the joy of being alive.
At this time of divisiveness we need our friends and our rituals of light and gratitude more than ever. Personally, I don’t know where I’d be without practices that remind me that, no matter how dark things may appear, light will return. The practice of daily gratitude has been like an old friend reminding me to not spin off into dark scenarios and to enjoy what there is in the present moment. These practices have seen me through some dark times and they are seeing me through today’s challenges. We need to recharge our batteries and remember what is good about life so that we may continue to fight for the proliferation of that good. We gather with loved ones, fortify ourselves with light, laughter and good food and remember how bountiful and generous the Earth is. We soak ourselves in the goodness of life and reboot.