The Death and Rebirth of Light

It being a holiday season for many religions, I figured I’d take a break from picking my way through the folkloric roots of the fantasy genre, and talk a bit about the death and rebirth of light.

Powerful symbol, ain’t it? From earliest times, humans must have noticed the days getting shorter and then longer again. (The further they lived from the equator, the more easily they would notice it.) We’ve got good reason to think that variation spurred the development of astronomy, and therefore of math, so that people could pinpoint the exact days on which the solstices and equinoxes fell. They built temples and monuments to mark those days, developed calendars so they could better know when to plant and harvest, then planned festivals around these things. Our planet’s little wobble on its axis gave birth to science, religion, culture.

I’m a solar-powered creature myself; I need the light. Paradoxically, then — or perhaps not paradoxically at all — the winter solstice is one of my favorite nights on the calendar. I love to curl up with a book and some music and read by candlelight, a little island of illumination in an otherwise dark room. No blue-glowing electronic devices; just the warmth of fire, and a reminder of the past. I have other holiday traditions (most of them Christmas-related, for all my family is not what you’d call church-going), but that one is personal.

What personal traditions, religious or otherwise, do you have around this time?



About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


The Death and Rebirth of Light — 10 Comments

  1. I adore Christmas lights on houses. The more the better. I see people sneer about excess, commercialism, blah he blah, and yes, I nod, but the glorious range of glowing colors on Christmas lights? Love.

  2. For me, it’s my tree. I have been collecting ornaments since I was a child. They are from all over the world, and not necessarily meant to be tree ornaments. It’s been one of the griefs of my current life that I haven’t had my tree up in several years.

    But I still receive ornaments from friends who travel far distances, and purchase one or two for the collection. I helped decorate two other trees this year — and look forward to decorating my own, this coming year.

    • My family is the same! We have necklace pendants and keychains and so on that have been repurposed as ornaments, because we basically get a new one every time we travel somewhere. Also Buddhist prayer ornaments and other things never meant to go on a Christmas tree. 🙂

      The piece de resistance, however, is a split segment of copper pipe, engraved with the date “December 25th, 1989” — that being the Christmas when our pipes froze and burst. The segment is, of course, the piece that blew. 🙂

      • Love the pipe! I am not sure which is my favorite — maybe I can figure it out next year? My mother does have some real, dyed egg shell ornaments that are open like a stage — one with a nativity, one with a stag in it, and a third that I think has Father Christmas. We loved those ornaments dearly.

  3. Our planet’s little wobble on its axis gave birth to science, religion, culture.

    Love that line.

    I used to go out at midnight with sparklers that I’d bought before the Fourth of July, and set a few off, swinging them around and laughing. The neighbors thought I was weird, but they already *knew* that. Have forgotten to buy sparklers the last two years, drat it all.

    • Down south fireworks are a tradition on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve! The vendors open up for a brief window before the holidays, although with the current drought, the sell days are curtailed, and many counties have banned fireworks. This year I heard “black cats” only once on Christmas Eve.

  4. Well, Hanukkah is obviously the Festival of Lights. What few people know, though, is that according to the Talmud, Hanukkah is the oldest holiday on Earth. The Talmud explains that after Adam was banished from Eden, he saw the days getting shorter, and was convinced the world was ending as punishment, and would be plunged into eternal darkness. He prayed for 8 days, and when they were over, it was the solstice. When he saw the day beginning to grow longer again, he celebrated, and the years after that, he set those eight fast days as a celebration. The gentiles would grow to observe it as Saturnalia and later Christmas, and the Jews revived it after the Maccabees into Hanukkah (which falls around the Winter Solstice).