Christmas Lights

Rethinking Christmas Lights, Part One

on December 20, 2019

(Bringing back my article about one of my favorite Christmas symbols – Christmas lights – originally posted in December 2014)

From the tasteful one-candle-in-each-window of a three-story colonial to the most garish and outrageous sacred/secular honky-tonk of a front-yard display — I have always loved Christmas lights. I appreciate the loving care with which homeowners create their winter wonderlands.

My house did not have outdoor lights every year when I was growing up. And when we did have them, it was usually just a few days before Christmas! My father was always too busy with The Salvation Army’s Christmas business from Thanksgiving all the way to Christmas Eve to string some lights above our front door.

“Everybody but us!” my mother would sigh each time we left our un-Christmassy naked house and drove through our illumined neighborhood at Christmas. Even today, my mother’s lament echoes in my head every December, inspiring me to display some sort of Christmas decoration on the patio of my condo. I dig my “JOY” sign out of the basement storage room and display it proudly every year.

Still, I have always considered Christmas lights to be “Christmas-lite.” They are the fun and festive part of Christmas, but not “Christian” per se. Do Christmas lights have much to do with the “Reason for the season?”

After all, it’s not a requirement for those who decorate their houses at Christmas time to think about, or even believe in, the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. And it’s not a requirement for those who believe in Jesus to light up their houses!

The exterior of my childhood home remained “dark” during the Christmas season (which I now know is actually the Advent Season, by the way). But inside the house we were celebrating the birth of Christ, the Son of God, Light from Light. . .

And there you are! In what a beautiful, wildly colorful, extravagant, joyful way Christmas lights can symbolize Jesus, the Light that came into the world (John 3:19). They can also remind us that Jesus called us to be “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). We are supposed to be light to others, to show them the way to Christ.

The San Antonio Riverwalk lit up for Christmas (Photo credit: Communities Digital News)
The San Antonio Riverwalk lit up for Christmas (Photo credit: Communities Digital News)

Now some will argue that Christmas lights — like most aspects of Christmas festivities — have pagan origins. That’s true. It is just one more  way in which the Church re-claims the fallen world for Christ. According to a December 5, 2014 article in Communities Digital News (CDN):

The History of Christmas says that the tradition of lighting the darkness goes back to the Yule, a midwinter festival celebrated by Norsemen. The festival boasted nights of feasting, drinking Yule, the Norse god Odin’s sacrificial beer and watching the fire leap around the Yule log burning in the home hearth.

The lighting of the Yule log spread throughout Europe. Many believed the log’s flame summoned the sun’s return and drove away evil spirits. Over time Christianity adopted this tradition and the light from the Yule log came to represent Jesus as Light in the darkness.

Who better to drive away “evil spirits” than Jesus?

CDN adds that in the days “before electricity lit up dark skies” people would put candles in their windows “to welcome weary travelers.” The candle light was “a beacon of hope,” explains the article, and for those travelling on “desolate and pitch-dark roads that tiny glow in the darkness meant sanctuary was just ahead.” Another website, What the Christmas Symbols Mean, says that lights “signify hope, happiness, and safety.”

Maybe it is harder to conceive of something having spiritual symbolism when it plugs into an electric socket — whether it’s incandescent or LED! But whether or not those who put up Christmas lights intend it, their dazzling display is a symbol of the hope, the happiness, and the safety of the one true Light who is the Christ of Christmas.

And if I didn’t already believe it because of what I said above, I read something last week that has thoroughly convinced me  — something that has made me determined to have Christmas lights blazing from my house every year! I will tell you about it in Part Two of this blog post.

  1. Comment by Noel Weymouth on December 22, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    My mom lives across the street from a Holiness church, which does not decorate the church for Christmas and encourages its members not to put up any “secular” decorations in their homes (Nativity scenes are OK, obviously). This is less extreme than Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t even sing Christmas hymns in church, don’t exchange gifts within the family, don’t put up decorations – ZIP for Christmas. I learned this from people who are EX-Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I get the impression that depriving kids of a normal Christmas has the effect of turning many of them against the religion of their parents.

    I see nothing wrong with Christians putting up decorations indoors and out. On our street, the only people who don’t put up decorations are either Jews (all secular) or the grumpy atheist couple, plus the two lesbians who reject Christianity as a “patriarchal/sexist tribal religion.” I didn’t want my own kids to see Christianity as a killjoy religion, so we had a normal Christmas, and at Easter we did the egg hunts and chocolate bunnies as well as going to church.

  2. Comment by Greg on December 22, 2014 at 9:26 pm

    Talk about a sexist tribe? That describes most lesbian gatherings it’s ever been my misfortune to be trapped in the middle of.

  3. Comment by ThereseZ on December 26, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    you could time it so that Advent is separate from Christmas. Perhaps not all the lights be turned on until after midnight Christmas Eve. That will help children anticipate the season better. And then keep the lights on for the next 12 nights, ending on Epiphany, again, to follow the season biblically instead.

  4. Comment by Psalti on December 20, 2019 at 2:16 pm

    Doing a gradual increase of outdoor lights throughout the Advent season has always been my custom, taking a cue from the Advent wreath’s steady increase of illumination.

    When I was in the West I would illuminate each additional decor on Saturday evening—the Vesperal time which is the beginning of Sunday.

    It has been a little more challenging as an Orthodox Christian because our Advent is longer: 40 days beginning on November 15; and the number of Sundays can vary.

    So now the very first few lights begin on November 15. The increases are made on certain Feast Days: The Presentation of the Theotokos (Nov 21); St. Andrew the Apostle (Nov 30); St Nicholas (Dec 6–the midpoint of the Fast); Sts Lucy and Herman of Alaska (Dec 13); and St. Ignatius of Antioch (Dec 20).

    Of course the really big light-up is on Christmas Eve and continues through Epiphany.

  5. Comment by MarcoPolo on December 24, 2014 at 10:27 am

    Faith McDonnell has done a nice job of depicting the seasonal trappings of contemporary Holiday expressions.

    Acknowledging the Solstice and the Yule-tide conflagration, the adornment of lights makes any dwelling a bit more festive, and one’s heart a bit more hopeful.

    Merry Christmas to all!

  6. Comment by Jennifer Prestash on December 24, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    John 1:4-5 – “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

    I love celebrating the coming of the Light with lights! It is a message to the world that the Light of Christ shines in the darkness.

  7. Comment by Linda on December 25, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    When was spent our first Christmas in Richmond, VA, we drove through the posh residential section of Windsor Farms, assuming the well-to-do would knock themselves out with decorations – on the contrary, deed restrictions mandated that residents were limited to one single clear candolier per window, no outdoor lights at all, and any indoor tree visible from the street could only have clear lights. One drive-through was enough. If you’re going to look festive – either for secular or religious reasons, or both – do it up in a big way, not so sedate.

  8. Comment by David on December 20, 2019 at 8:23 am

    “For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God and offence of others, it is therefore ordered by this Court and the authority thereof, that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon such accountants as aforesaid, every person so offending shall pay of every such offence five shillings, as a fine to the county.” MA Bay Colony, 1659

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