Here in the northern hemisphere we are now approaching peak darkness, and we’re getting ready to turn the corner into the time of days getting longer. But in the weeks before we get there we have a number of occasions left involving candle lighting––our simple, primitive, romantic attempt to fight off the darkness.
Last Sunday was the first of the four Advent Sundays, when Finnish Lutherans get to start playing with fire in church as Christmas approaches. I was rather surprised to hear on the radio this week that the Lutheran authorities here estimate that they had a nation-wide turnout of up to a million people in church for the occasion. In a country of five million, four million of whom are officially Lutheran, where the average member comes to church less than twice per year, they had out nearly a full quarter of the whole flock last Sunday. Far fewer actually turned out to vote in parish elections last month, in spite of many new national advertising campaigns encouraging people to do so.
Some say the secret to the popularity of this particular church-going day has to do with the once a year chance to sing join in singing the rousing Hymn number 1 in the Finnish Lutheran hymnal: “Hosianna, Oh Son of David” (which my own sons have always taken special amusement in), but I happen to think it has more to do with the collective celebration featuring candles.
Of course the more traditional high churches have candles going all the time. High Orthodox ceremonies often feature bishops waving around three candles with one hand and two with the other; which inevitably makes a waxy mess of the floor. In Catholic churches they tend to keep the candles more still, mounted in strategic places around other major symbols within the chapel. In either case, and in Protestant Christian and Jewish worship as well, these candles can have all sorts of mystical meanings to believers, ranging from symbolizing the ideal of purity to acting as sort of spiritual catalyst for the believer’s prayers.
Next week, on December 6th, we have Finland’s Independence Day. The country will officially be 93 years old. This occasion is nothing like American Independence Day: no grand military parades or fireworks or triumphalism; just visits to cemeteries to honor heroes of the country’s fights to become and remain independent, political speeches and receptions on television, somber family dinners, and above all candles in the national colors in the window. No one is entirely sure where the candle tradition comes from, but it has something to do with being ready to support armed struggle for the security of the nation. Should pacifists then light candles on such occasions? I’m not in a position to say.
Another place where candles are especially widely used in this part of the world is in graveyards. This overtly pagan tradition has its own charm. Going to the graves of particular individuals who have meant something to us in their life, and lighting a candle there to show respect and give them a message that they are not forgotten, might be one of our most primitive and basic mystical instincts. Visits to the cemetery on Finland’s Independence Day in particular––especially when one is going to pay tribute to some of the former soldiers whose cause for fighting one respects––more or less have to include candles. As I’ve mentioned before, for me this refers to my late ex-father-in-law in particular: the grandfather of my sons, for whom I have always had a deep admiration and respect, in spite of my problems with his daughter.
Then the following week we have Saint Lucia day, where some beauty queen and her runner-up princesses are paraded around in angelic white gowns, with lots of candle-light, as good will ambassadors for the light soon to return. The heroine of the parade has the dubious privilege of wearing a crown decorated with live burning candles, which forces her to walk very slowly and carefully so as to not light her (inevitably blonde) hair on fire and to minimize the amount of candle wax she will have to try to shampoo out the following day. The idea of celebrating the life and death of a rich girl from ancient Sicily, who basically ended up having her eyes gouged out for refusing to get married, is rather lost on these occasions. Instead what we have is a celebration of Swedish-speaking culture in particular, and its genius for finding Christian excuses for continuing on with pagan traditions, such as lighting candles in anticipation of the return of the sun.
From there we have just a week and a half left until Christmas itself, with all the extra lighting that it entails. These days Christmas lights in Finland as well are based mostly on LED technology, but when I first moved to this country the tradition of having live candles on a natural fir Christmas tree was still alive and well. The first Christmas I spent visiting in Finland was back in 1985, and I still remember my surprise at seeing that this sort of fire safety risk was still practiced here. I’d seen such things in movies set in 19th century England and the like, but I did not know that such things were still practiced in the industrialized world. At one point during those celebrations I was the first one to jump out of my seat to extinguish a branch that was starting to catch on fire. (At that point my date’s crazy aunt piped up and said, “He’ll make a good father.”)
But even now the tradition of having the little electric lights look as much like natural candles as possible remains strong. More exotic commercial decorations of robotic Santas and neon reindeer and miniature Las Vegas-style flashing light displays just aren’t catching on here. After all the other candle lit celebrations leading up to Christmas here, people just tend to stay in the mood for more candle-like light.
Whatever else can be said for or against my adopted homeland, I must admit, when it comes to candles they really are onto something. Particularly if you can’t get sunlight for extended periods, and bright lights designed for therapeutic purposes aren’t doing it for you, there’s a lot to be said for candle light. Much has been said about the hypnotic, therapeutic effects of watching either surf or flames, and when neither the ocean nor a proper fireplace is available we try to capture a little of their magic in the form of fountains and candles respectively. Either can create a tender, soothing, even romantic atmosphere, and many restaurants around the world try hard to boost their romantic image by providing clients with both. But it can also be a question of balancing yin and yang: when there is an excess of heat and bright intensity, we naturally crave the yin of water in motion; when there is more cold and darkness than we ideally want around us, we naturally crave the yang of a natural flame. In this sense dim, warm colored electric lights just aren’t the same.
Of course candles are always just a temporary measure; they burn out far too quickly. We only use them when our need for light is rather temporary: during dinner, or an evening concert, or a religious ritual for instance. In the long run if we don’t get a stronger, hotter, longer lasting source of light back pretty soon, candle light can become rather frustrating for us even. This is part of what makes candles so appropriate for December: by the end of the month we will have turned a corner. It may still be getting colder for the next month or two, but every day gives us a few more minutes of daylight up here. It’s especially in those last few weeks before this shift happens that we really benefit from candles. They have this implied message of, “Don’t worry, things will get better pretty soon, and in the mean time I’m here to help.” They work brilliantly for that, as long as you have the hope that before too long you will reach the end of the tunnel and the sun will shine again.
(Brief aside: for reasons of both the national melancholy and the fact that the Finnish language has far fewer variations on the s-sound, Finns find this tongue-twister particularly hard to say: “We shall surely see the sun shine soon.”)
Perhaps candles’ very impermanence is also something that we like about them. Like sand and snow sculptures, or like fireworks even, they serve to remind us that life itself can be beautiful, but it is always temporary. Candles may in this sense help us to stop and appreciate the moments we experience, knowing that they weren’t intended to last for ever, but that they can still be tremendously valuable as stops along the way down our own little paths.
So the question from there is, is there some great hope that each of us is waiting for as we metaphorically burn our own candles? What is the sunlight that we are waiting to see return? What are we longing to find when we reach the end of the tunnel; the mouth of the cave? Can we somehow return to the “sunlight” of a force greater and more eternal than ourselves at some point? Can we as individuals have some lasting effect on or role in the big scheme of things? Or are these little candle lit moments really all life has to offer?
Heavy question. One that saints and poets have been pondering for millennia already. I won’t pretend to have a final answer to it. What I will say though is that there are many aspects of that greater light that I haven’t come to yet, but I haven’t given up looking. Meanwhile I try to keep my candle burning––sheltering it from the gusts of wind which try to blow it out every now and again––and I try to appreciate as many of the little moments I see by its light along the way as possible. I suppose that each of us needs to balance these grand hopes with appreciation for passing moments in his or her own way.
So I wish each of you all the best in your search for the sunlight you crave, and peace and contentment in your candle lit moments in the mean time. Happy Advent season to all.